Just as opposing armies once had to break British squares – or try to – so Remain (or what’s left of its shattered forces) must try to break the Brexit triangle: David Davis, Liam Fox, Boris Johnson. Forcing the defeat and resignation of one the Three Brexiteers would be a blow to the balance of forces within the Government and Cabinet. It cannot be achieved without whipping up a media storm – even if turns out to be a storm in a teacup. And since Remain campaigners are not in a position to force anything much at the moment, they must rely on what journalists themselves can snuffle out on their own accord.
Johnson has his friends and enemies among journalists – which is not surprising, because he is one. Davis once had at least as many of the latter as the former, but the media is sentimental, and parts of it are still a bit dewy-eyed about his return to government from the land of the political dead. That leaves Fox.
The Trade Secretary is not, I think, a great journalistic favourite. Politicians must now expect anything they say anywhere at any time to end up on a tape. So it was always unlikely that he would be unable to let his hair down among friends, as he spoke at a Conservative Way Forward dinner, without a recording device preserving each word for posterity. Fox was therefore unwise to chance his arm with a crack about “companies” not wishing to export because “it might be too difficult or too time-consuming or because they can’t play golf on a Friday afternoon”. And business people don’t like politicians to suggest that they are fat or lazy – even when this may, in a small number of cases, indeed be the case (just as it is the other way round).
But on the substance of the argument, rather than on its surface, the Trade Secretary has a strong point. As the Sunday Times wrote this morning, George Osborne set a target of achieving a doubling of exports to £1,000 billion by 2020 Total exports last year were £509 billion, marginally up on the £499 billion total for 2010.
The core of Fox’s case was that Brexit is necessary for greater prosperity, but not sufficient. It is significant that it has been backed up today not only by the Sunday Times but by the Sunday Telegraph too (as he was yesterday by Fraser Nelson). There is a sense that the Trade Secretary has a sound case, that he feels passionately about it, and that the usual suspects – the CBI, Remain campaigners, Vince Cable – are less angry about what he said than delighted he was caught saying it. Fox bore patiently for part of the summer leaks of letters about moving parts of the Foreign Office that deal with trade to his department. He had a point there, too.
So expect more stories-to-come designed, at the very least, to embarrass the Trade Secretary and, at their most direct, to force him out. There is a bit of Fox hunt on. Each case must be judged on its merits. But be aware why some are targeting him; keep an eye open for their motives.