In the debate following this afternoon’s statement, David Davis shared the contents of a message he had received after his appointment of Brexit Secretary. It read: “Many congratulations. I now believe in a resurrection.”
Resurrected he most certainly has been. It is eight years since his resignation not only as Shadow Home Secretary but as an MP to fight a by-election over civil liberties, an act widely assumed to have ended his front bench career. And yet there he was today taking on the most pressing issue facing the nation.
Flanked by his fellow Brexiteers, Fox and Johnson, Davis took to his feet to elaborate at least a bit on the meaning of the Prime Minister’s famous phrase: “Brexit means Brexit”.
The further detail he gave was punchy enough, as far as it went:
“Naturally, people want to know what Brexit will mean.
Simply, it means the UK leaving the European Union. We will decide on our borders, our laws, and taxpayers’ money.
It means getting the best deal for Britain – one that is unique to Britain and not an ‘off the shelf’ solution. This must mean controls on the numbers of people who come to Britain from Europe – but also a positive outcome for those who wish to trade in goods and services.”
The contents of the Brexit pot evidently do what it says on the tin.
It has of course only been a few weeks since his department was created, and only two months since the referendum itself, so I doubt even the SNP really believe their own protest that Davis had failed to turn up with a six-hundred page document laying out chapter and verse of the outcome of Brexit negotiations.
He was able to tell the House of his broad rules of engagement, however:
“…as we proceed, we will be guided by some clear principles. First, as I said, we wish to build a national consensus around our position. Second, while always putting the national interest first, we will always act in good faith towards our European partners. Third, wherever possible we will try to minimise any uncertainty that change can inevitably bring. And, fourth, crucially, we will – by the end of this process – have left the European Union, and put the sovereignty and supremacy of this Parliament beyond doubt.”
The most interesting of those four principles is the first – how far will his “national consensus” extend, what price will the Government be willing to pay in terms of concessions to bring Remainers on board, and how long will Davis’s patience last with the most stubborn denialists, who want the whole referendum result ignored or overturned?
There was a hint of how he intends to play that game in today’s debate. His statement was keen to emphasise the work he and his colleagues are doing to consult, holding talks with Holyrood, Cardiff, Stormont, businesses, local authorities and so on about what they want from the negotiation. In other words, he is willing to listen to those who are happy to engage in the process, regardless of their position in the referendum campaign
“…most of those who wanted to Remain have accepted the result and now want to make a success of the course Britain has chosen. Indeed, organisations and individuals I have met already that backed the Remain campaign now want to be engaged in the process of exit and are identifying the positive changes that will flow from it as well as the challenges.”
That warm attitude will, however, not be on offer to those who reject the process outright.
The first person to discover that fact was his Labour opposite number, the hapless Emily Thornberry, who took the opportunity to demand a vote on the matter. Davis was brutal in his response:
“What she is trying to wrap up in a pseudo-democratic masquerade is the most anti-democratic proposal I have heard for some time. She wants to deny the will of the British people.”
This was the old war horse in full flow, merrily trampling an opponent. He knows the topic inside out and he believes in his mission. He isn’t a unilateralist – indeed, he is offering an amnesty to those who disagreed during the campaign to get on board with the outcome. But woe betide anyone who tries to stop him.