The decision of David Davis to resign as Brexit Secretary following the Cabinet showdown at Chequers last Friday will have surprised few people once details of the deal foisted on the Cabinet became public.
It is hard to see how anyone who truly believes that Brexit is the right and best option for Britain could endorse the position now being advocated by the Prime Minister. DD is an ardent believer in Brexit and has been consistent in his position since long before the 2016 Referendum.
He will have been deeply proud to have been appointed as the Minister responsible for delivering Brexit and delivering on the biggest democratic mandate ever delivered by the British people.
It is clear to even the most casual observer that, as with every other task he believes in, this is a job he has thrown himself into with gusto and committed himself heart and soul to delivering on the will of the British people.
However, it has been clear for some time that the toughest negotiations he has had to contend with were not with the EU, but rather within his own party and Government. He is a principled man and it seems that standing by these principles has seen his power and influence gradually eroded as Prime Minister Theresa May and her pro-EU Brexit advisor, Olly Robbins, have increasingly become the face of negotiations.
While this will no doubt have angered him, he has swallowed his pride again and again for the greater good. Even after an unnamed Irish Minister described him as “the tea boy” and claimed they will only talk to Robbins, he maintained a dignified silence.
In his resignation letter, DD listed a number of areas where he has been at odds with Number 10, going back as far as acceding to the EU’s demands on the sequencing of negotiations. It is clear that this decision has been a long time coming and, while he has been willing, in his own words, to accept “collective responsibility”, the Prime Minister’s latest policy position is a big step too far. It effectively made his position untenable.
The letter is damning in his critique of the Prime Minister’s new policy. He dismisses the new stance as handing control over “large swathes of our economy to the EU” and claims it would not “return control of our laws in any real sense”. He also notes that the outcome of such a position would be to “leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one”.
Even in these comments, he is being diplomatic and even goes so far as to concede in the final paragraph that his judgement on this could be wrong. EU experts have been far more critical, with Martin Howe QC, an EU legal expert and advisor to the European Research Group, dismissing the stance as a “worst of all worlds” Brexit which would leave the UK as a vassal state. Be in no doubt that DD is likely to be in full agreement with this assessment in private.
The last time DD resigned from a front-bench position, he returned to the backbenches where he engaged in various policy areas and, aside from civil liberties issues, remained largely loyal to the Cameron Government. His resignation on that occasion proved to be the catalyst which sparked a shift in the public debate on civil liberties and privacy which still reverberates today. However, this time things are likely to be very different.
With his Brexit Ministers Steve Baker also resigning, and others may follow, this resignation is likely to have repercussions that are even greater.
Pro-Brexit Tories are fuming at the PM’s perceived betrayal of Brexit in her current policy position and they know that her majority and therefore her control over the party and the Government is weak. I believe DD’s resignation seems almost certain to trigger a vote of no confidence in her leadership. And with DD free from the restrictions of Cabinet, he is an obvious figurehead for their move to replace her.
Does he aspire to be Prime Minister? I don’t believe so. And he has said in his interview on this morning’s Today programme that he will not be challenging her. But I have no doubt that he does aspire to see the successful delivery of a Brexit that the British people voted for in their millions. He will have hoped to do so as Brexit Secretary, but that has not proved possible. If Theresa May proves unable to command the support of her party on this crucial issue, then surely her position will quickly become untenable. And in that scenario, DD’s tune could change.
Is he the right man for the job? Possibly. He has shown in his time as Brexit Secretary a willingness to compromise and work alongside Remain-supporting colleagues. He has also shown a willingness to stand up to the EU and their, at times, ludicrous negotiating positions. And he has been consistent in saying that Britain has to be prepared to walk away without a deal if one cannot be secured. This is the type of Brexit negotiation that the British people are looking for.
To the wider British public, he is probably a more palatable choice than Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris, both of whom are seen as divisive characters, while Michael Gove’s copybook is well and truly blotted by his antics in the last leadership campaign – as well as his decision to come out and back the PM’s current Brexit position so publicly.
Any leadership challenge would have to be quick, clear, and decisive. It has to be focused on one thing only, and that is standing up for British interests and delivering a proper Brexit.
DD is more than capable of taking the reins and delivering that. He has a better chance than most of being able to unite his party, and indeed the country, behind a strong government position. And he has the long-term vision and political strength to take the difficult decisions that are in the best interests of Britain.
Ironically, it seems quite possible that his resignation from the Cabinet could soon put him in the position to do just that.