Nadine Dorries tweeted on Thursday that David Davis, as a former SAS reservist, is trained to survive and “to take people out”. She was telling only part of the story. Davis is unquestionably a survivor: Minister for Europe, Public Accounts Committee Chairman, Conservative Party Chairman, Tory leadership candidate, Shadow Home Secretary, by-election Don Quixote, backbench rebel…and now, at the age of nearly 70, the least youthful comeback kid in history: appointed as the first and perhaps the last Brexit Secretary by the main ministerial target of his revolts – Theresa May.
Dorries didn’t add that many of those Davis wants to “take out” are more than happy to return the compliment. There is no shortage of marmite politicians at Westminster, but Davis makes most of them taste like blancmagne. His friends’ take is that he is principled, brave, strategic, a deadly campaigner, highly intelligent, a lost leader, loyal to a fault…and occasionally exasperating. His enemies’ view is mostly unprintable. What can be written of it once the expletives are removed are such words and phrases as: egotistical, boastful, unreliable, opportunistic, a plotter, not a team player. There are quite a few of those friends and even more of these enemies – a fair number of whom are his fellow Tory MPs.
ConservativeHome is firmly in friends’ column, but we suspect that Davis has found his present job a tougher gig than he expected. His breezy account of how leaving the EU should proceed, published on this site a few days before his appointment to the Brexit department, has proved less easy to realise in practice than on paper. He has sometimes blown a trumpet only to sound the retreat – as in his assertion last year that the negotiation timetable would provoke “the row of the summer”. He was in trouble over Brexit impact assessments, sorry, assessments of Brexit impacts, and it took all his craft and experience to ofuscate, sorry, explain the difference between the two. That was part of the tale of a brand-new department that sometimes flies blind. As the only survivor at the Tory top of the pre-New Labour age, he has never been quite at ease with spin, and tends to say what he thinks – which has included the observation that he doesn’t need brains to do his present job (which is almost certainly untrue).
It is worth standing back from Davis’ progress, such as it is, and considering at the big picture. Brexit is the biggest national challenge since the war, endorsed by a record number of voters in a mass referendum, and for which the previous government did almost no preparation at all. In such circumstances, there will be no shortage of what Michael Howard yesterday called “thrills and spills”. An unsung virtue of Davis is that he has kept the show on the road – Dominic Grieve to the left of him, Jacob Rees-Mogg to the right of him, Michel Barnier in front in him, and leaks all around him – while feral lobby journalists, know-it-all academics, lofty Remainer peers, Gina Miller, the Financial Times and the lurking Labour Party volly and thunder. He has made his case and kept his temper; held up his end in the chamber, on the media, and in front of the Brexit Select Committee, and worked assiduously to keep Leave-backing Tory MPs onside. Like the volatile Boris Johnson, he talks the talk. But unlike the Foreign Secretary, he has the responsibility of walking the walk.
Even more importantly, he has twice nudged Theresa May forward when she seemed too frozen to move. The first time was in February, when there was an impasse over divergence and alignment. It was Davis who pushed for a Chequers summit to find a way forward, and got it. The second time was this week. The Prime Minister again appeared paralysed – over a White Paper on Brexit and over customs. We wrote on Thursday that it is hard to see how Davis got what he wanted on the backstop. We added that there was perhaps “more to today’s discussion than meets the eye”. So it has proved. There is to be a further Chequers summit to help resolve customs and make progress on the White Paper. One can begin to see, just, how a proper negotiating position could emerge: an end-date to the backstop; something like the Open Europe plan on alignment and divergence; a recast max fac scheme. The EU might eventually reject all this entirely. Then again, it might not. There is a glimmer of light for the Government today that wasn’t there before Davis took the initiative.
He is a hard man to get right. On the one hand, serial rumours of resignation hang about him like an aura. On the other, he is in some ways a rather traditional politician, trained as a minister a quarter of a century ago, and with an old-fashioned sense of how government should work: his experience stretches back to the Thatcher years, when he was Eric Forth’s PPS. Though he can do fiddly detail, he’s happier with the big picture – and in taking decisions, which is more rare among Ministers than should be the case. Damned in some quarters as a soloist, he has a plodding sense of duty. It is an open secret in Westminster and Whitehall that Olly Robbins is now doing his job – the negotiating element of it, anyway. Yet Davis packs up his troubles in his old kit bag.
This sidelining makes no sense. One very experienced observer made the point to ConHome that politicians are naturally on a level with other politicians: they have a shared understanding of personal ambition, of the democratic rough-and-tumble, of cutting deals. Even were Robbins to be the best civil servant in history, he would still be a civil servant (all the more so). Davis should be out in Brussels most weeks – strategising, negotiating, wheeling, dealing, continuing to nudge the Prime Minister forward: doing the job he was appointed to do. Never mind, on reflection, what’s to the left and right and in front of him. What matters is that May gets fully behind him.