ConservativeHome spoke yesterday evening to sources close to David Davis, who unambiguously deny the Daily Telegraph‘s story today that he may resign out of frustration with Theresa May over Brexit. They laughed the suggestion off, saying that it is “simply wrong”. In particular, they disputed the claim that the Brexit Secretary is angry because he was not shown a recent letter to the Prime Minister from Boris Johnson and Michael Gove which sought to toughen her stance on leaving the EU. “David was only too pleased not to have seen the letter,” said the source. “Because that way he can’t be accused of leaking it.”
But it is worth delving a bit into the Telegraph’s account, and other coverage this morning, to get a sense of the background to it – and what may be going on. The paper says that Davis is frustrated by the role that Jeremy Heywood and Oliver Robbins are now playing in drawing up Brexit policy for the Prime Minister in Downing Street. This is close to the mark. The Brexit Secretary didn’t see eye to eye with Robbins, who served until recently as Permanent Secretary in DexEU, and the latter’s move will have relieved them both. May has certainly boosted the policy-making capacity at the centre which reports to her personally.
However, the main source for the Telegraph’s story undermines his own claim that Davis may quit with his description of how Brexit policy now works. As he points out, the Prime Minister is not in a position to set its course on her own, as she might effectively have been had she won a landslide last June. The lack of a Conservative majority has tilted the balance of power from May herself to Cabinet members (which was precisely why Gove and Johnson felt secure enough to write that letter in the first place). The key decision-making body is now the EU Strategy and Negotiations sub-committee.
It was recently enlarged, and now includes the Environment Secretary and Liam Fox. With the Brexit and Foreign Secretaries also on the committee, the main Cabinet backers of Leave during the referendum are all present. Measures that they don’t like could only be forced through it by all other six members acting in concert, and such a dispute would risk a major rupture and possibly resignations. And readers will have noted during the last few months that Johnson and Gove, in their different ways, are not backward about putting their views forcefully – hence the letter.
To put it brutally, the Prime Minister is not in a position to impose Brexit policy on her Cabinet colleagues, however much senior civil servants might wish in private that it were otherwise. She must proceed by consensus. And no-one is more important to it than Davis, who does not feel the Vote Leave loyalties that so tug at the Foreign and Environment Secretaries, but who like them wants a post-Brexit model that is closer to Canada than Switzerland. In effect, he has become the key Cabinet “swing voter” when it comes to policy formulation on leaving, and not only because of his role in the negotiation. May could not just force her views on him were she to try.
The Telegraph story is not brilliantly sourced. The “friend” of the Brexit Secretary says in it that he that he might resign, and doesn’t claim to have spoken to him. And that’s about it. A Cabinet member is quoted as saying that Davis “has form” – which is true enough – but this is very much in the realm of speculation. A question sometimes worth asking in these circumstances is: who benefits? Or in this case: who gains from such stories about the Brexit Secretary? (The paper also contains an attack on him today from Charles Moore.) His relations with the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary are very patchy.