“I liked my old blue passport.” So said David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, in a brief exchange with journalists at the end of his interview with Iain Dale, LBC presenter and ConservativeHome columnist.
Davis is doing a job he never expected to be offered: “I didn’t think in a million years David Cameron would offer it to me, or indeed Theresa.”
Far from waiting by the phone to see if he got a call on the Wednesday when she became Prime Minister and made her first appointments, he turned his mobile off and went for a drink with a friend who told him: “Twitter says you’re inside Number Ten.”
When Twitter continued to convey this inaccurate but nevertheless suggestive information, he turned his phone back on, and found a series of increasingly frantic messages saying “Please call Number Ten.”
He was asked to come and see the Prime Minister: “So you walk up Downing Street trying not to look smug. Frankly I failed completely at not looking smug.”
May proceeded to offer him the job of Brexit Secretary, which he at once accepted. Her manner was more formal than some of her predecessors: “When Major was doing reshuffles, you’d sit next to him. Not Theresa – ‘Sit over there’.”
But how, Dale wondered, will Davis cope with a job in which he is “going to have effectively to be like a Trappist monk”.
Davis admitted there are drawbacks to not being allowed to give a running commentary on the negotiations: if you don’t fill the space, it gets filled with made-up stuff.
But he is not unduly worried: “That’s froth. It’s irritating but it doesn’t matter. What matters much more is that we don’t screw up the negotiation. The media will get very irritated, but we don’t serve them, we serve the public.”
Britain, Davis insisted, will not adopt a “stuff you” attitude to European negotiators. We will be model EU citizens until we leave. But there is nothing to stop us “getting the treaties ready to come into effect very quickly” after Brexit.
The Brexit Secretary struck throughout a note of optimism. He plainly believes that the task entrusted to him is eminently achievable.
What will the government’s social reform agenda mean in practice? A high-level panel convened at a joint ConservativeHome/Policy Exchange meeting to consider this question. David Willetts, who chairs the Resolution Foundation, said he was not sure whether he was being asked what he thinks the agenda should mean, or what Theresa May will actually do. But since he hopes these two positions will turn out to be identical, he proceeded to offer his own opinions. To deal with the oppressively high cost of housing, Willetts commended “Beaverbrookism”: the term used by Harold Macmillan in the early 1950s to mean the harnessing of both the private and the public sectors to achieve a dramatic increase in house-building.
Paul Goodman, the editor of ConservativeHome, said he expects Theresa May and her adviser Nick Timothy to pursue “Erdington Modernisation”, which means a relentless focus on improving the lives of ordinary working people. But Philip Collins, a columnist for The Times, said the most notable feature of Erdington is Spaghetti Junction, on entering which “you don’t know where you’re going and could end up anywhere”.
Nick Bosanquet, Professor of Health Policy at Imperial College, London, observed that Erdington is best known for “the making of the Mosquito bomber which completely transformed the bombing effort in the second war”. Among the “Mosquito-like moves” he wants to see is the raising of interest rates to 2.5 per cent, their level from 1861-1914, which encouraged people of modest means to save.
David Goodhart, of Policy Exchange, remarked that the new Government appears to favour “a more active state”. One of the actions he would most like to see is the creation of many more apprenticeships: last year, he pointed out, only 6,000 construction apprenticeships had been completed, compared to 20,000 as recently as 2008.
All four speakers were admirably concise, behaving in accordance with Voltaire’s dictum that the secret of being dull is to try to say everything.