The EU before the referendum
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): How formative was your career before politics – working at Tate & Lyle – to your opinion of the European Union?
David Davis (DD): Not very. Not enormously. The one that might have been, I guess unconsciously was almost the first thing I had to do … well, within a year of going to work for them. That was to go to Liverpool and be part of the team that carried out the refinery closure because the negotiation had led to a loss of, I’ve forgotten, it may have been a million tons – it was certainly a large number of tons – of cane sugar access. And that effectively shrunk the cane industry and expanded the beet industry, to make it consistent with European policy on it. And that was obviously an unpleasant process.
I can’t tell you it didn’t have any effect on me at all. But in terms of conscious impact, bear in mind that I’ve never been an enormous advocate of the European Union in the sense that I think quite a lot of its claims are bogus. But I was normally what you might think of as a sort of civilised sceptic. Bearing in mind, I took the Maastricht Bill through the House of Commons. I was the whip that did that. It was famous at the time. I always took the view that, broadly speaking, the European Union was a beneficial organisation. It was less beneficial for us than for many of the other member states.
But, at the time we went in, in 1972/73, we were a country in decline and were sort of coming to terms with the post-imperial world, really. Our economy was doing poorly. And then from the early 1970s until 1995, our market share of European markets doubled. It went from about 4% to 8%. And then from 1995 until now, it halved again. And the reason for that primarily was before then, the sort of protectionist ring, the common external tariff barrier worked in our favour. After the Uruguay Round, that crashed down to about 25% of what it was before, and our supposed great advantage from the European common market evaporated.
It didn’t evaporate but the advantage radically reduced. Now, the point about all that is it shaped my view much more than anything right back at the beginning of my working life. I can’t tell you that the closure of the Liverpool refinery didn’t have an emotional impact on me, it did. And I thought it was pointless. You know, why was this going on? It was going on to basically serve French farmers. But, nevertheless, it didn’t mean I didn’t think the European Union was useful, in the intervening period, in terms of bringing Europe out of the sort of post-war era.
UKICE: When we get to the leadership contest with David Cameron, do you think his pledge that the Conservative Party would leave the European People’s party (EPP) grouping in the European Parliament was central to why he won in the end?
DD: No, it wasn’t central. Central to why he won was we screwed up. Let’s be clear about it. But he was silly to do it. I don’t know if you’re aware, I told him not to. And I said, ‘I am not going to make that pledge.’ But he felt he needed to outflank me, you know, with some of the most determined of what would have been early Brexiteers. They weren’t Brexiteers in those days, but they called them Eurosceptics. Some of them europhobes, really, rather than Eurosceptics – people who really disliked Europe. And it cost him later. He obviously calculated it was important to him. I thought it wasn’t.
UKICE: Were you surprised he offered a referendum in the Bloomberg speech, or do you think that holding a referendum had become inevitable by that point?
DD: No. One of the things I didn’t agree with in many of the interviews you have published is the idea that somehow this was inevitable. It wasn’t inevitable at all. I’m pleased he did, as it turned out, because even though it’s a bit of a scrambled outcome, the outcome I think is better. But I thought it was almost an act of political self-harm. He was never a very good judge of the Eurosceptic wing of the party. Indeed, very few Remainers are. Written through all of your interviews like Brighton through a stick of rock is a massive set of common misperceptions.
It’s like an echo chamber. We can talk about echo chambers later. They’re quite important in this process. And he just misjudged it. He could have run that touchline for a very, very long time, you know.
The renegotiation and the referendum
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Were you surprised by the number of Tory MPs who backed Brexit?
David Davis (DD): No. I was surprised that some of them didn’t. Nick Herbert, for example, and people like that. But no, I wasn’t surprised by that. I was mildly surprised by Boris and Gove, the other way.
UKICE: What about Theresa May?
DD: No. We’ll talk more about Theresa, I’m sure. There are all sorts of meanings to the phrase ‘liberal conservative’, but Theresa is basically a liberal conservative in the sense she’s a conservative that is a bit like the liberals. I’m a liberal conservative but I am nothing like the liberals. Do you see what I mean? That’s where her space is. She’s a sort of centre-right Tory, and that’s where she sits.
So she would have had irritations about the European Union. But one of the things that later actually handicapped the negotiation was she was, as is perhaps understandable with a Home Secretary, absolutely obsessed with the security dimensions of it. Now, I happen to think the security dimensions are less valuable than people think. And, of course, I’m also of the view that we ourselves make too many concessions on terrorism and so on.
But she viewed it as a massively important thing in that respect, which is why she sort of basically conceded the whole package right at the beginning. She shouldn’t have done. We’re the security superpower of Europe. We should have used that. So, yes, I never thought she would.
UKICE: What were your thoughts – watching from outside government – on Cameron’s renegotiation?
DD: That was a sort of competition in naiveté on all sorts of levels. The belief that Merkel and indeed Sarkozy would be helpful to it was to misunderstand how each of those people saw themselves. They see themselves as almost the embodiment of their countries, and therefore their own national interests would be massively important in all of that. You know, for both of them, their domestic policy is the big driver of the European policy, and they’re the two countries for whom that is a reasonable position to take. The way the European Mechanism was designed by Jean Monnet is that it wasn’t designed to be democratic at all. It’s almost a Marxist concept, a sort of leadership cadre.
But, for them, it became all of Germany’s foreign policy and a good chunk of its economic policy. And it became an enormous adjunct to French domestic and foreign policy too. And, indeed, you started off by asking me about whether Tate & Lyle altered my view about Europe. The thing that most altered my view about Europe was the treatment of Greece and the treatment of Greece was a direct spin-off of German interest in terms of the economic interest and preservation of the euro and so on.
But, to come back to the Cameron negotiation: to believe that Merkel would do anything but let him down, which is what she did, or Sarkozy would do anything but let him down, which is what he did, was frankly naïve.
UKICE: Was there anything David Cameron could have delivered in the renegotiation that would have made you campaign for it?
DD: Probably not. It didn’t affect the big thing for me, which was the treatment of Greece. And I think it sort of rather showed the European Union in the worst possible light. But he could have delivered something which could have been portrayed accurately as a success, which would have maybe moved the two per cent needed, bearing in mind it was quite a close result.
UKICE: Were you confident that Leave would win the referendum?
DD: I put £200 on us winning on the morning of the vote.
UKICE: Had you been confident all along?
DD: Let me tell you a true story. Three months before the referendum, I went to see George Osborne and I said, ‘George, you’re going to lose,’ and he said, ‘No, we’re not.’ I said, ‘Yes, you are. It’s not going to be a big loss, but you’re going to lose.’
And he said, ‘Why do you say that?’ I talked around what I’ve been picking up around the country, because I wasn’t on the Vote Leave speaker list – I did my own exercise. I said, and bear in mind this was a guess, ‘You’re going to lose by 48 to 52.’
That came back to haunt me. This was three months out. No agreement. So, two months out, I get to see him again. Another cup of tea, and say the same thing. It’s almost the same conversation. I said, ‘You and David had better start preparing how you’re going to handle it when you lose, because it’s going to be important. You can’t do the negotiation. You’re going to have to appoint somebody to do the negotiation for you, and that person is going to be a barony like British politics has never, ever seen. Because you guys have disqualified so somebody has got to do it.’ That was a misjudgement on my part, but, you know, that’s what I said. But he said, ‘No, no, no, no.’
Anyway, I went to see him about two weeks before the referendum. This was the last conversation, and I repeated all of this, pretty much. And he said, ‘Well, maybe if we lose, we have to go.’ The first time I’d ever heard him say that. I didn’t really think he meant it and I don’t think he meant it for himself. But maybe he’d had a conversation with David. I don’t know. But that was the last time.
So, the answer to your question is yes, I thought it was going to go that way. By the most unscientific method – and that’s really from talking to a load of people who turned up at town hall meetings and this sort of stuff. Right down to talking to the West Yorkshire artisan fitting my wife’s kitchen. She punished me by fitting the kitchen while I was campaigning. And I had this rotation of people going through, brickies and plumbers and so on, all from industrial West Yorkshire. Every single one of them, there were many of them all told, every single one of them voted leave.
I had a wonderful conversation with a government economist.
He’s a Yorkshireman. I remember talking to him once and he said, during the referendum, it’s completely unlike a general election or anything like that, he said, ‘You can go down pub on a Saturday night in Sheffield, in a general election, nobody’s talking about politics. You go down the pub at the moment and they’re all talking about the referendum. They’re asking me sensible questions. You know, about, ‘Do we really send all this money over to the European Union?’ ‘Do they spend it without…?’ ‘Do we really not control it by…” and so on. All very sensible questions.
And that’s precisely what I got from my workmen. That’s the only coherent sample I had, the others were all round the country. It was very interesting. I remember reading Claire Fox’s interview, which I thought was the best interview you have done – and she had a similar perception and experience.
But it was interesting, because this denial or rejection of the Leave voters by the Remainers was quite interesting.
I had a conversation with a painter and decorator, and he said, ‘Are you in or are you out, Mr Davis?’ and I said, ‘I’m out.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, me too.’ I said, ‘Why.’ And he said, ‘Well, immigration.’ I thought, ‘Here we go. I’m going to get a racist rant.’ And I said, ‘What, don’t you like foreigners?’ He said, ‘Oh, no. If I were them, I’d be here. If I were Bulgarian or a Pole, they get three times as much money here as they get back home.’ He said, ‘Perfectly sensible. I don’t blame them. I blame you.’ And then he said, ‘You decide how many come.’ I said, ‘So why is it a problem?’ He said, ‘Well, actually, I haven’t had a pay increase for ten years, and my son’s got trouble getting a job, unless I employ him. So I need it brought under control.’
That I had reflected – not quite so crisply – right across the country. I didn’t have one person who came at me with the UKIP poster. Nobody did that. But a lot of people made perfectly rational economic arguments about this. And of course it’s now showing, wages are going up, you know.
So whether that’s this or whether it’s Covid or Christ knows, but they are going up. The trouble is we can’t disentangle the facts, but wages are going up. That I had time and time again. Then you had other people like the brickie who had built his own company up. He had a company of 50 people, a small business, and I didn’t even have to ask him a question. I drove into my courtyard and he said, ‘Mr. Davis,’ he said, ‘When you see Mr Osborne next, tell him something for me, will you?’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Four thousand pounds for my freedom? Cheap at the price!’
That was the sort of spectrum of views you were getting. And what’s interesting is they weren’t changing. You know, I’d love to tell you that me going around the country telling them what the great golden uplands looked like was going to change. Not a piece of it, frankly. I think both campaigns did nothing to move the vote, but they both tainted the outcome.
UKICE: They perhaps did something for turnout, though?
DD: I don’t know – people cared from the beginning. They didn’t need us to tell them they should care.
UKICE: Do you think David Cameron’s inner circle felt that there would be apathy, and that no one was really going to bother turning out?
DD: That’s the Hampstead view of this. The one thing I can guarantee you is the Hampstead view of this, or the Islington view, or the Isleworth view for that matter, is just wrong. They just don’t know what was going on beyond the M25. I represent a blue brick in the red wall, or the old red wall, as it were: a pretty solid Tory seat. It has had its days down at a 1,500 majority, but it is generally a pretty solid Tory seat.
But they are Yorkshiremen and women, and they’re pretty hard-headed. They knew what they thought about this before I talked to them. And the ones who didn’t agree with me don’t agree with me now. And the ones who did agree with me in the beginning agree with me today. There’s very, very little movement. So I don’t know. The answer to your purported question, as it were, of, ‘Did it move the turnout?’ I don’t think so, but I don’t know.
UKICE: Why were you not more involved with Vote Leave? Was that your decision or theirs?
DD: A bit of both, really. I’m a longstanding critic of Cummings. Cummings hates me with a passion. He hates lots of people with a passion. It’s not a particularly distinguishing characteristic. When he first came into working on Tory party policy he was taken on by Iain Duncan Smith, who eventually sacked him – and Cumming’s claim to fame was he had moved the referendum on the North East Assembly. I think the vote was something like 80 per cent against – nobody moved that. It was just sort of self-entertainment, shall we say, to describe yourself as having moved that.
But also his sort of modus operandi is he tries to find things that you don’t know about and then he’ll focus on them and make himself look smarter. So one of the things he does, because he has a lot of spare time, is he reads books and he’ll find a book which catches his attention, like so many of them. There’s a sort of style of modern book like The Black Swan and others, and Superforecasting. I mean, I can summarise the superforecasting book in a sentence, and that is if your name isn’t nailed to a forecast, you’re able to change your mind. You’re a better forecaster than otherwise. All the so-called ‘superforecasters’ were people who weren’t famous but who were across the subject, whereas the poor forecasters were the people who’d made a forecast and then they were stuck with it. You see this in all the debates over Europe. Everybody is stuck with their own forecast, it’s nonsense.
Anyway, he disliked me intensely. So partly I suspect that affected the extent to which they asked for my help. I turned up to one or two of the meetings early on. They wanted to talk about various issues, like the £350 million, which you will find Andrea Leadsom, Iain Duncan Smith, me, never used. We just thought it wasn’t a lie, but it was a deception, if you take the distinction. Most of us didn’t talk much about immigration. Or if we did it was in economic terms, and so on. So there were differences of view about it. And so I just chose to do it my way, and well enough knowing that I have enough name recognition that I can organise public meetings.
UKICE: Where were you on the night of the referendum?
DD: I was in God knows how many studios, otherwise I would have got 13/1 not 5/1 on Leave winning. I’m not kidding. Alex Salmond was doing virtually the same tour as me and Alex is a bookies mate, a betting man. So he kept telling me the bloody odds. I thought I’d done well in getting 5/1 in the morning. But that’s what I was doing all night.
The funniest bit was we got to David Dimbleby’s all-night event. To go back to Cummings – I’m a mathematician, so pretending to know your figures doesn’t work with me unless you know them. Anyway, I’d done a, ‘If it’s a 50/50 draw, what’s the number in Middlesbrough? What’s the number in X…?’ So I had my running line. I put them in rough order. We knew roughly when the count would have been complete. So, I had my running order. And by the time I got to Dimbleby it would have been at about one in the morning, there had been about a million votes counted.
I was a fifth of the way down my running order. And, as the cameras went away, as they do in these things, he said to me, ‘It looks like you guys might win.’ I said, ‘What do you mean we might win? We have won.’ I said, ‘There’s a million votes cast. That’s much bigger than any opinion poll you’ve ever had’. And on this measurement, I think we were just over 52/48, or we were about 53/47 or something like that. It was just a little bit more. I said, ‘We’ve won.’ I said, ‘It’s raining in London. That’s all you need to know.’
UKICE: It hammered it down.
DD: It rained there, and that probably added half a point to the result. But, anyway, he said, ‘For heaven’s sake, don’t say that on air,’ because it was his programme, and they had five more hours to go.
Joining the May Administration
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Did you have a sense that Theresa May was going to appoint you?
David Davis (DD): No, not at all. I originally was going to support Boris because I know Boris well. When he was fired by Michael Howard for lying about an affair or whatever, he was on my team, before he went off to be Mayor of London. And he used to be European correspondent, when I was Europe Minister. So, over the years, I have got to know his pluses and his minuses. I know what he’s like. And my view was that what this next phase needed was not subtlety, but commitment and determination. But Gove killed him, in that episode.
I then looked at the others and I went through them all and I came to the conclusion that if we couldn’t have a charismatic, determined lead, which was the optimum in my view, then the next best thing was to have technocratic competence.
So, I went to see her. I asked her certain things about how she would run the negotiation, and one or two other things, too. Theresa and I have common views on many things, but there are some areas, particularly when she was Home Secretary, where we disagree. And I told her. I said, ‘Right, I will support you,’ and she looked completely shocked by this. And she said, ‘Would you say that publicly?’ I said, ‘Of course I’ll bloody say it publicly. If I’m going to support you, I’m going to support you.’
And then I joined on their campaign team. Not very high salience in truth. But, you know, I was a name. And I remember vividly being somewhat surprised – I was surprised by a number of things. But Fiona Hill, who was basically her right arm, one of her two right arms, and I went for a drink at the Greencoat Boy on Horseferry Road. We were standing outside having a glass of wine before I went off home and Fiona was talking about various things.
Her boyfriend at the time was Charles Farr, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. He had been a sort of very hard-line authoritarian influence inside the Home Office, and, somehow or other, he came up. ‘Oh, he’s a big fan of yours.’ And I said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘We’re complete opposites, we’re total antagonists, we are made by nature to be predatory on one another. What do you mean?’ She said, ‘Oh, no, you were fantastically valuable to him.’ And I said, ‘Why was that?’ She said, ‘Well, whenever MI5 or MI6 or the GCHQ come up with a bonkers idea, he just said, ‘Davis will kill you.’ And that was it. And, he actually quite agrees with what you say, but you are often his way of stopping them.” So I suddenly realised that the view of me, because it was five years of antagonism, basically, the view of me in the Home Office team was not quite as black and white as I thought.
The Chilcot debate in the House of Commons was on the night of her reshuffle. I was a very strong advocate of the families of the dead soldiers mostly. So, I had a big debate in the Commons with Alex Salmond and others taking part in that. After it I went for a drink with a senior member of my staff in the “Adjournment” restaurant in Portcullis House. We were sitting there at seven o’clock or quarter to seven maybe and she said, ‘Oh, Twitter keeps saying you’re at Number 10.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m obviously not,’ and carried on without thinking about it. Five minutes later she said, ‘They’re still saying you’re at Number 10.’ I said, ‘Take a photograph of me holding this glass of wine and say ‘He’s not in Number 10.” So she did that and tweeted that. Ten minutes later, ‘They’re still saying he’s in Number 10.’
It suddenly occurred to me, I’d turned my phone off. I flicked the phone back on and there was a big stream of messages. ‘Please call Number 10,’ and that’s the first I knew about it.
UKICE: Did she talk to you about what your role would entail and what your role in the negotiations would be?
DD: Not at the point of offer. The only point there was – showing my sense of humour and not hers – is she said, ‘We’re thinking of calling it either the Department for Exiting the European Union, or the Department for Leaving the European Union.’ And I couldn’t resist. I said, ‘We’ve got to be the Department for Exiting, then we can call it Department X,’ but she didn’t get the joke, she was completely straight-faced.
But the next day, or two or three days later maybe, anyway in the first week, she called me and basically said, ‘Look, you must understand, I, the Prime Minister, will be leading the negotiations, but I want you to assist me with that.’ She had actually said that in the offer, but she called me in to talk me through that a couple of days later and she repeated that. And I said, ‘That’s fine.’ It’s what I expect. This is such a big negotiation. That’s how you would expect to run it. And then about three or four days later, she called me in again and said, ‘It’s very, very important we operate together.’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Well, you know, you’ve got lots of contacts in the press and so on.’ I said, ‘Prime Minister, my job is to make you the best Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher. It’s as simple as that. Can we just stick with that?’ And that was fine.
Bearing in mind it affected even the geography. So, my micro department, the inner piece of it, was in 9 Downing Street. A tiny set of offices, almost cabinets. Why? Because, when anything went wrong, I’d just walk up the street into Number 10. And for the entire period when Fiona Hill and Nick were there, that’s precisely what happened. About once a week, you know, I’d go up, and something would happen and I’d look at it and the civil service would be making a mess of it. They couldn’t disentangle themselves.
So I’d just go up and say, ‘Look, this needs to happen,’ and it would, and that was for the period when Fiona and Nick were there.
UKICE: So, pre-election?
UKICE: Did you at the time have any qualms about the creation of DExEU?
DD: My original assumption was that they would just make it a part of the Foreign Office.
UKICE: Not the Cabinet Office?
DD: No, not the Cabinet Office. I mean, in terms of slow bicycle races, they would both fall over. But I understood why they didn’t. I mean, when I first went to the Foreign Office as a Europe Minister many, many moons ago, I called in all the European Union department staff, which were all the brightest and best of the Foreign Office in those days. That was where the best jobs were. I said to them all, ‘Look, your job is to argue with me until the point of decision. Then your job is to make it work. Nobody will be punished for arguing with me, no matter how strongly, until the point of decision. The only penalty will come if you bugger up the decision afterwards.’
They also took that, and afterwards I found out they liked being told that. And, when I left, they were all fans. Basically, Stephen (Wall) and all the rest of them were really very supportive. I got lots of very nice letters, handwritten letters from them all, as Blair comes in. But there is an intrinsic house view in the Foreign Office, which to this day is problematic, or was problematic, and it’s problematic for Boris actually now. So I can see why they moved it out. But the Cabinet Office will be no better.
I mean, the difficulty you’ve got, and we’ve got to be careful not to be paranoid about this, but the difficulty you’ve got is that – of the maybe 30 Permanent Secretary rank civil servants – how many do you think voted for Brexit? Something like zero? Do you know what the odds of that are in a random selection? It’s a billion to one, two to the 30th. That’s just the nature of it.
So, creating something to deliver this is quite difficult. When they did create DExEU, I found out later, I didn’t find out at the time, a number of departments – when some of their better people applied, they just simply offered them a better job. They just said, ‘If you go there, you won’t do very well. You can have a promotion today.’ I tripped over a few of those later on, there was nothing you could do about it by then anyway. But we had some very good people, don’t get me wrong. Simon Case ran my Irish team, and there were lots of other very good people. But they were fighting against not an opposition so much as an inertia. There was opposition. Principally from the Treasury, not so much the Foreign Office. But most departments, it was just rammed right down their priority list. Which, given it was on a two or three-year timetable, was quite difficult.
Brexit policy and politics, July 2016 - June 2017
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): As of July 2016, was it clear in your mind we were leaving the Single Market and the customs union?
David Davis (DD): Yes, yes. The thing to bear in mind is this is one of the areas where there’s a disjuncture between Remainers and Leavers. ‘Take back control’, to give Cummings his due, was a phrase of genius– because that’s actually what it’s about. If you went to the North East before the Nissan announcement and talked to Nissan employees, they would mostly have voted Brexit and they would have voted Brexit knowing that it might have risked their job – despite what their own management were saying to them.
You saw this up and down the country. In fact, I think Claire Fox said it to you, corporate chiefs lecturing their people and then the workers all buggering off and sending their vote anyway, even though they thought it might be a risk. So, Philip Hammond’s line, ‘Nobody voted to be poorer,’ I should have introduced him to Michael Caine. Remember Michael Caine’s line? ‘I’d rather be a poor master than a rich servant.’ So, customs union and single market, I would say, ‘Yes.’ Because without them you can’t take back control.
UKICE: There were Leavers who spoke about remaining in the Single Market.
DD: Oh, yes, yes. Yes, they were mostly Leavers who never thought they’d win. You know, these were the people who were surprised. A lot of them weren’t serious.
UKICE: Do you think Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were surprised?
DD: Yes, oh, yes, I think they were surprised. I think it’s a matter of record they were surprised. Michael Gove’s wife has written about that feeling, you know, ‘You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.’ So, yes, I think they were surprised. I think and hope surprised with glee, but I think in their minds they’d never prepared for it.
I don’t mean they should have done a detailed plan, because we know that Whitehall did not do a detailed plan and when they did, they put Oliver Letwin on it, which given all of his track record with operational management was not great. The simple truth is that I think very, very few people – on either side of the debate – were emotionally ready for the outcome.
UKICE: Was there any planning or preparation that was done in the period before you took over government, by Oliver Letwin’s team in July 2016, that was of use to you?
DD: No, none of it, it was all hopeless. Well, there wasn’t very much of it. What did he have, a couple of weeks? No, none of it. The truth is the unsung hero of Brexit preparation was a civil servant, he’s not a politician. He’s a man called Tom Shinner, who essentially ran the ‘Deal’ and ‘No Deal’ prep. Despite really difficult opposition – again inertia, not opposition, mostly. And he did a very, very good job.
The wonderful irony of this was, after I’d stood down, I went to a Privy Council briefing at the Cabinet Office about Operation Yellowhammer. When I looked at some of these things and I thought, ‘This is amateurish stuff,’ I said to them, ‘Did you actually talk to the DExEU preparation team before you did this?’ and this was followed by a long, yawning silence. They plainly hadn’t. They didn’t really have a proper grip of what the risks were.
So, no, there was nothing much done in the Cabinet Office that was of use. Shinner’s stuff was variable but good. I mean, variable because the departments were variable, in terms of their input. It was pretty good, generally, but there were some very critical elements that were not – I assume you’re going to ask me about customs at some point, customs management, and that was one of the variable elements, to say the least.
UKICE: Did you have any say or were you consulted over either the Prime Minister’s conference speeches or the Lancaster House speech?
DD: Not the conference speech, which caused a bit of a ripple.
UKICE: Were you surprised by that at all?
DD: Yes, mildly. I mean, this, again, comes back to this question of what Remainers think Leavers want, yes? I think that was a misjudgement, I think they thought it was all about immigration. Whilst immigration was a significant point, ‘My painter and decorator and my plumber in London,’ and all the rest of it, the bigger thing was control. The bigger thing was just the actual delivery of the thing. A bit of Boris’ genius is he saw that, as long as you could put a label on it saying ‘Brexit done’, almost irrespective of the bends and twists and the plumbing, it’s what people wanted. It was a feeling of independence as much as the independence, if you like.
So, I think that was a misjudgement. I just assumed it was going okay because what happens in party conference speeches is you write your own. You hand it over to Number 10, thinking that’s just for clearance and they nick the best bits. So, there were some bits of me in it, but they weren’t the bits that caused controversy, ironically, they were other bits.
I had much more of a say and a sight of the Lancaster House speech, and Florence a little bit and so on. So it varied, it varied.
UKICE: Is it fair to say you broadly trusted Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill in the way that they would approach Brexit, you thought they had good instincts on it?
DD: Yes, well, Nick, mostly. Fiona didn’t have a strong view either way, really. They had, I think, good perceptions on what people wanted and a more robust view, frankly, of how to carry out the negotiation. One of the problems later on – again, this is a Remainer versus Leaver viewpoint – was the Remainers were so afraid of no deal that they structured the negotiation in a way … Well, it would be unfair to call it spineless, but there wasn’t much resistance at times.
If you do a negotiation, an international negotiation – I did as Europe Minister, and when negotiating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and obviously lots of commercial negotiations – there’s always a point of tension. There have got to be points of tension where you’re uncertain about the outcome. Indeed, you have to design them. Instead, the Whitehall strategy was basically to avoid them all, that was the problem. But I trusted Nick and Fi to give the Prime Minister robust advice on these things, you know?
I mean, a variety of people recommended the general election, including me, and I’ll tell you why in a second. Indeed, nobody opposed it. Whatever they say now, she went round the Cabinet table on the day of announcement and they all said, ‘Great idea.’
One of the reasons, and I think Nick and Fi’s reasons, were to give them a stronger majority in the House to deliver not just on Brexit but on a number of other things, which is actually ended up why, basically, Theresa personally lost the election. If you go back and look, you’ll find there is no Brexit Day in the campaign. There were two planned, they were both cancelled because of terrorist events. So, I had two big days and neither of them materialised. There were days on other issues which were phenomenally unpopular, that’s all, with pensioners and house owners and so on.
The Home Office had experienced lots of problems with the House of Lords. Many of their fairly authoritarian policies ran into trouble in the Lords. I’m slightly guessing, but I think the logic that Timothy went through was, ‘If we have an explicit manifesto a commitment on these things…’
UKICE: Yes, the Salisbury Convention.
DD: The Salisbury Convention. Well, in fact, the proper solution to the Lords is a big majority in the Commons, then you don’t have a problem, you know? They destroyed the majority in the Commons in the pursuit of the Salisbury Convention commitment.
But the other reason for the election was time. We only had, effectively, two years left of the existing term and that would have run us up against an election right at the point we had, in my mind – it never happened – these points of tension. When that happens, when you’re on a fixed deadline and the other side aren’t, they can use it. There are a dozen strategies you can pull off and if you don’t think Michel (Barnier) would have thought of those … He didn’t think of most of the strategies, but he would have understood that.
UKICE: You and Philip Hammond both agreed on the call for an election, I think, is that right in saying?
DD: That’s right, yes. I’m not sure entirely what Philip’s logic was, but yes, broadly. We had a 20-odd point lead and the other side were in disarray and they had Corbyn and so on. Another one in a billion chance, in any normal situation. Actually, until two days before the election, we still had something like a 15-point lead.
I remember that the night before the election, it was very odd because I said to Fiona, ‘I’m not seeing many human beings. You know, I’m in with the politicians all the time.’ So I didn’t really have my normal connection. Normally, I’ve got a fairly good judgement of a campaign. To do that, you’ve got to be on doorsteps. So I didn’t have my normal connection, but I just felt uncomfortable the night before.
Everyone was thinking we were going to win and I said to Fiona, ‘I’m just not sure about tomorrow. You had probably better put me up for the Today programme because I’m not sure it’s going to be quite what we think.’ She said, ‘Yes, sure, we’ll put you on ten past eight.’ I said, ‘Well, if you put me on ten past eight, I’ve got to be flown back down because I’ve got to be at my own count at four-thirty in the morning,” and so on. And the helicopter turns up and all that sort of nonsense.
And I flew down, I got to Denham airport, whatever it was, the car picked me up, I pick up the phone to Central Office and I say, ‘Right, what have you booked me on?’ Well, no, first thing is I couldn’t get anybody, nobody was answering the phone. Eventually, I get the front desk who finds the press office. I say, ‘What have you booked me on?’ ‘Oh, we don’t have you down for anything.’ This is the morning. This is about five-thirty in the morning. ‘Nothing? Who’s doing the Today programme?’ ‘Well, I don’t have anybody slotted in.’ So, I just leaned forward and said to the driver, ‘Take me to Downing Street,’ and I went to see her.
UKICE: Is Tim Shipman’s account of the period after the 2017 general election broadly correct, in that you told Theresa May she should stay on as Prime Minister?
DD: Yes, I said, ‘You should stay.’ I said, ‘The party will probably demand a sacrifice, which means you’re going to lose one of Nick or Fi.’ I said, ‘It’s not right, but that’s what will happen to you,’ and I said, ‘You’re going to have to face the 1922 too.” She did and, actually, she did that quite well. I can’t remember the details, but I remember thinking it went alright.
I had a lot of people ask me to depose her and I could have done it like that, but I’d taken the view, ‘I owe her loyalty,’ and that was that.
UKICE: Just to backtrack quickly, we spoke to Raoul Ruparel, who said that you had opposed contesting the Miller case?
DD: Well, ‘oppose’ is putting it too strongly. I was against it, but already the decision had been taken. There were a couple of occasions in this wonderful Viking saga in which things just happened and I was the recipient of the decision rather than having an input to it.
UKICE: Who took that decision, do you know, and why?
DD: It’s not clear, I guess it must have been Theresa, but it was unwise for a variety of reasons. Firstly, this was about ‘Take back control’? Who to? That was the first element of it. Secondly, it just delayed the process and took us out of play.
Thirdly, delivering the Article 50 bill was easy and would always have been easy. It’s unfair to say I wrote it, there are obviously Parliamentary draftsmen, but I went through it with a fine-tooth comb, made sure it was basically one page and resisted every single possible attempt to make it longer or change it in every way. We could do that and we carried that off. We had a bloody great rebellion in the Lords, we sent it straight back and they collapsed, as I expected would happen.
So, I thought that was a significant mistake, but it wasn’t worth a fight. In this process, there are a lot of times along the way where there are things that are worth a fight and things that are not and we’ll come to a lot of fights later. This one, I was certain, in my mind, we were going to lose. So, I thought, ‘Well, we’re going to have the Article 50 bill anyway, so why do I waste my time? I’ve got a limited amount of fire power so I’ll use it where I can.’ So, I thought it was ethically wrong, democratically wrong, tactically unwise.
The only virtue of it is it gave us a little bit of thinking time forestablishing what we wanted. At least, I thought we would, but we didn’t. We had an early, simple white paper. We didn’t have a proper full one. One of the issues that came up later was the absence of a proper white paper. What was apparent to me was there was an awful lot of policymaking on the hoof going on and there’s a really critical one I’ll tell you about in a second. The policymaking on the hoof was not the policymaking I would have made. It appeared to be happening somewhere between Number 10 and Brussels, from time to time.
This was arising because Olly Robbins was my Permanent Secretary. He obviously saw his role primarily as being the Prime Minister’s Sherpa. That takes you, in total, out of the loop. Not just me but the department in total. There’s a pack of Europe advisors in Number 10 and they were all Remainers. Again, that doesn’t make them bad people, it just means their perception of what’s right and wrong, in terms of delivering Brexit, was different. Also, they were all survivors of the abortive Cameron negotiation. My cruel characterisation of the Cameron negotiation was that he aimed low and went lower.
In truth my view was, in almost all successful negotiations, you aim very high and work out in the middle, right? So, you saw this characteristic happening all the time, of not taking the points of tension. So, I was pressing for a proper white paper so we could actually get something nailed down, really, that was what that was about.
So, we had some time but the truth is we wrote a white paper which was a de minimis white paper, really, and it didn’t specify the critical things that needed to be specified. So, what happens? We go through the election, we lose the majority, we become dependent … this is critical, we become at least theoretically dependent on DUP. Although, to be fair, they were fairly compliant for most of the time, certainly all the time I was in the job and that’s not a coincidence.
Then, we go into the money negotiation. Now, when we came back from the election, I had intended – and this is the second thing where we end up with a fait accompli – to make two things the battle: money and sequencing. They’d given away sequencing.
DExEU during the Brexit negotiations
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Were you involved in that decision, to make a concession to the European Union on the sequencing of negotiations?
David Davis (DD): No. I found out about giving away sequencing when I arrived in Brussels, to the first post. I was sitting there – I’m not kidding – that evening, thinking ‘Do I fly straight back to London and have a row?’ I was trying to work out which was better for our negotiating position. As a massively visible difference of opinion between the DExEU Minister and the Prime Minister, which would make the headline because we were due to have the final round in the next day, yes? There’s no way you could stop that being a headline, right? Or go with it and try to work around it.
I thought about it for hours and I think I went to bed at about half two that morning, just sitting there trying to think, ‘How the fuck,’ – forgive my bad language – ‘Do we get out of this particular hole?’ because it was so predictable. I mean, the consequences were so predictable.
Anyway, I decided in the end, ‘Right, we’ll have to do it the other way,’ and the decision was, ‘We’re going to end up with a whole load of bloody difficult demands from the European Union, treating us, really, as clients rather than as an equal negotiator. I’m going to have to find a way of psychologically dealing with that.’
Which is how come I was so nice and charming and smiling for the whole bloody thing, because I just took the view, ‘Well, we’ve just got to make them look unreasonable. You make them look unreasonable, you make Barnier look unreasonable…’ and all the tabloids would write out terrible stories about Barnier here. I’m not sure it was the right call, to be honest, but that was where that came from.
Anyway, so I then called in Robbins and I talked to him about the financial negotiations and I said, ‘You can go up to £40 billion but slowly, please, by the end of the summer, and tie it to what comes next.’ I thought, well, maybe we can get round the non-sequencing by linking it. They threw that away too, eventually, but not initially. They tried. Barnier got very angry several times, saying, ‘You cannot use our money to buy our compliance.’ We said, ‘It’s not your money, Michel. We will decide whose money it is.’ And, to be fair to them, the Treasury did a good job on the haggling on that over the course of summer.
So we got to October/November and his group and the 27 decided they had not made ‘sufficient progress’, that was the phrase they used, to move on to the next phase, where sequencing suddenly becomes critical. I think even Robbins realised at that point, that that would have been a mistake, but there we are.
Anyway, so that’s what happened there. We get there and I’m not worried becausewhatever else about the election it has given us time. So if we’d have been on a two-year time frame I’d have been fretful, but I’m not worried about that. And so we carried on and we keep talking.
Interestingly, when the Europeans put together their groups – they had recommended groups – they had not put one for Ireland in. We nominated Ireland, and we saw the problem, they didn’t, at the beginning. It was a sort of wonderful irony later on, you know.
At that point, it was just a joint meeting of the moderators, I think. If you look back at the records you’ll find it. But you’ll find there’s a clue. It’s not said publicly, but there’s a clue. There’s the distinction between the Irish arrangement and the other groups on European citizens and so on. Because they’ve got proper committees, whereas the Irish one doesn’t.
But, anyway, we get to November. Now, I then miss a trick because what I don’t see is how nervous Theresa is getting about this. This becomes apparent on 3 December, at roughly three o’clock in the afternoon. 3 December I think is a Sunday, if I’ve got the date right, I’m at home in Yorkshire. My phone goes. It’s Theresa, the Prime Minister.
She said, ‘David, glad to catch you, we’ve just been working over a few things. There’ll be some changes in wording that you may have some difficulties with. So, I thought I’d just check with you.’ I said, ‘Fine.’ There were two changes in the wording. The first one I did have difficulties with, but it became minor when we got to the second one. She said, ‘We’ve agreed to have the phrase ‘There will be full alignment between regulations in Northern Ireland and the European Union,’ something like that.
I said, ‘You can’t say that, Prime Minister. It’s completely contrary to what you had in the Lancaster House speech.’, and I said, ‘And what’s more, you’ll be locking the United Kingdom by the dint of the Northern Irish lock into the European regulatory system. You’ll have given away the whole game.’ She said, ‘No, no, no. It’s just full alignment of outcomes.’ I said, ‘Have they agreed that, those words, ‘full alignment of outcomes’?’
In fact, if you look in my Hansard entries in the next month or so, I’m trying to hang on to ‘full alignment of outcomes’. I didn’t succeed at all but I tried, and I said, ‘Well, you know, you can’t do that, Prime Minister. It’s simply a breach of what you’ve promised to do.’ And then she says, ‘But, David, we’ve got to make progress.’ And that was the point. Now, I discovered later, that I think ‘they’ – i.e. Olly and her – were bounced with that new wording, I think. And I have reason to believe, I wasn’t told at the time, but I have reason to believe that Varadkar refused to take her call for the whole weekend.
Now, that’s what I understand. But that’s second-hand. That’s not my knowledge, and so you’d have to verify that.
UKICE: Was your relationship with Olly Robbins becoming unsustainable and did it ease up when he changed jobs and you got your own Permanent Secretary?
DD: Well, I required him to change jobs. Basically, I went to see her and said, ‘This doesn’t work.’ And the reason I did that was two-fold. One, I wasn’t getting the information flow that he had promised, and she implicitly had promised. I wasn’t very happy with that. But also, more importantly, the department wasn’t running properly. You know, things I had asked to happen didn’t happen. Now, that’s a characteristic I never came across when I was a Minister of State, let alone the Secretary of State. And the Minister of State in a hostile Foreign Office, and I was the Eurosceptic Minister of State and I still got everything done I wanted done.
And what I was beginning to realise was that things I wanted done were being blocked. Nobody quite told me in terms, but it was pretty clear. I complained to him three or four times but nothing fit, nothing corrected. So I said, ‘I need a new Permanent Secretary,’ and so I got Philip (Rycroft), who you’ve interviewed.
Who was fine. I mean, again, it’s the same old problem – you’ve got another Remainer. He never said as much, but I assumed that from his general viewpoint. . But his first value was he was my own Permanent Secretary. He’s a skilful, competent guy. He’d been out of the civil service and had come back in. He had worked for Nick Clegg. And so I thought he probably would have some skills at dealing with other departments who weren’t entirely helpful, because Clegg was a minority in a Tory government. He had his other responsibilities for the union. And I thought pretty much all of Whitehall was careless about the union.
Obviously not the Cabinet Office, whose responsibility it was, but the rest of them were. They weren’t antagonistic or problematic, but they were just careless, you know, and you’d trip over various bits of policy where they hadn’t thought through. So I thought for those reasons he would be the best I’d get. And I think that’s probably about right,. Anybody in that job, they’d be torn because even though I’d moved Robbins, the simple truth is this is the Prime Minister’s negotiation, I was defending it, supporting it and promoting it as best I could.
But at the end of the day if you have got a clash between the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, who’s going to win? So the whole civil service, the way the British constitution actually works – as against how it theoretically works – is it works in orbit around the Prime Minister. Whoever the Prime Minister is, it works in orbit around the Prime Minister.
Now, that orbit becomes elliptical rather than circular around the Treasury from time to time. For John Major, it was elliptical because Ken Clarke was so important to him – not because he was Chancellor, but for other reasons. Obviously Brown, obviously Osborne, obviously Lawson. But that’s how it actually works. And once I was not able just to walk up the street, talk to the two advisers, just walk in, no appointment, walk in and say, ‘We’ve got a problem here. This is what the problem is. This is how we deal with it.’ That went back to being a circular orbit. So that’s your problem. But that was the reasoning. I’ve forgotten the detail and the timing now, I can’t remember what triggered it, but that was the reasoning.
UKICE: Were you concerned by the direction of travel of the Florence speech, at all – when she was talking about mutual recognition?
DD: No. Mutual recognition is fine. What had become apparent were a few things. Firstly, that whatever she said publicly, there was not enough nerve in Number 10 to even take a small risk of a no deal outcome. Now, I wasn’t nervous about a no deal outcome, partly because I thought it would never happen, or, at least, if it did happen, it would happen for a month, and everybody would be in agony. Well, either it would happen for a month and it would work, or it would happen for a month and there’d be anarchy.
I tried, on one occasion, to take one of my most nervous civil servants to North America, to Detroit, because I’ve traded across that border, I know what it’s like. It’s a nightmare. It makes Dover look like paradise. It’s got a bridge and a tunnel, and that’s about it. And you’ve got a Ford factory there. I took my people to the Ford factory in Detroit who had engines made in Canada. And they assembled them for the biggest volume car in the world, the F-150. It was made from Canadian engines, American assembly and American other bits and pieces.
And it all came through on basically a trusted trader scheme, which is what we already operate in Northern Ireland. And so I said, ‘Look, this is how it will work when you get the systems in place,’ because most of these people had never seen a border operating. They’d never done it. I mean, all the people who are supposed experts in Whitehall, most of them have never traded across a border, certainly not across a physical border, you know. And so, yeah, I didn’t win the argument.
You know, I’d have to take thirty Permanent Secretaries and Christ knows who else and probably handcuff them. So they were nervous about no deal. They were so nervous about no deal they couldn’t even pretend they were really serious about no deal, and the Europeans could see that. So why would they hesitate? And why would they draw back?
If you want to look just at some hard data, I did a speech in Vienna. It’s the only speech I made in Vienna. I can’t remember the date, but it was the only speech I made in Vienna. And I said, ‘This is not a race to the bottom, it’s a race to the top. And the thrust of it is this. If I am making a car in Detroit or for that matter in Coventry, and I want to minimise the cost of making that car, what I do is I go to California and look at their emissions standards. I go to Europe and look at their safety standards, and I basically bundle them all up and I average up, not down, because each of these regulations don’t cost very much, actually, once the production line or the assembly line is set up. I used to run them. I know. They’re not that expensive. What’s expensive is change, so changing from a European standard to a California standard and back again, that’s expensive, or altering it. And so for the big companies, it’s not as big problem as sometimes claimed. For small companies it’s a different matter.’
And so I made this argument in Vienna. They just didn’t believe it because they think we’re all Anglo-Saxon barbarians. But I said, ‘Look, the way of the future is global free trade. Global free trade is the greatest thing that’s happened in the history of mankind. It’s raised one and a half billion people out of poverty in 30 years. Nothing like that has ever happened. So how do we preserve it? We preserve it by averaging up. We preserve it by a race for the top, not a race for the bottom,’ and so on. You’ll find it’s exactly consistent with that. Basically, I wrote that. Normallywhen you write a speech, the Secretary of State writes 10 per cent of it and the department writes 90 per cent. It was the other way around with this.
UKICE: Were you comfortable with the joint reports? I think everyone remembers the week after you went on The Andrew Marr Show and said it was a statement of intent.
DD: Oh, yes. Well, it was. And, actually, to be fair to the Commission, for once in their life, they told the truth. What I said was it’s not legally binding, which it wasn’t. We had the 3 December conversation, I said, ‘Let me think about it.’
Unusually, I get on the train that evening. I normally get the crack of dawn train in the morning. I get on the train that evening because I think, ‘I don’t want to be late for the meeting.’ Monday morning, I go out to get my car. No car. My chauffeur-driven car was not there. I think, ‘Ah. Have I been fired already? What a relief!’
I can’t find the car. Call my office, ‘Where’s the car?’, ‘It’s supposed to be picking you up.’ Try to call Uber. Uber has this bloody process where you call an Uber and it says ‘Yes’ and then it says ‘No’ three minutes later. That happened seven times. No black cabs, of course. Sod it, I get on a bus. I go to Vauxhall Bridge and I get on the 87 bus, which is packed, of course, everybody is staring at me because I am a well-known face. They’re obviously thinking the government’s gone bankrupt. The Secretary of State is travelling by bus.
At eight o’clock on the dot, literally to the second, my phone goes. I know it’s Number 10 so I can’t answer it because I’m in a crowd. Five times it rings. I think, ‘They’re panicking. They think I’ve resigned or walked out in a huff or something.’ So it doesn’t stop. I then ring my office quickly and I say, ‘This is David Davis. I’m on the bus, since I haven’t been able to find my driver. I’m on the bus. So can you tell the next door neighbours I’m on the bus and will be in, in ten minutes?’ And my APS says, ‘Next door neighbours?’ I said, ‘Yes, who lives next door…?’
And so I arrive, and of course, they are panicking because they think I’m going to cause a fuss. And my calculation was the DUP will never accept this, and then they’ll get forced back, and then she’s got an excuse and so on.
Right enough, we go to lunch with Juncker. By the way, my prior calculation before this bloody weekend had been that Juncker had fixed this lunch. He’d been the moving partner in fixing the lunch. Juncker never fixes a lunch in Brussels unless he’s got an announcement in his pocket. So I assume a week before they’ve got what they need. And of course, the ambush was what they wanted.
Anyway, so we arrive there, and while we’re there, Arlene Foster calls. Imagine, half an hour on the phone in the middle of lunch. That’s it, they refuse. And we come back and there’s a bit of backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards. And I come to the conclusion… I think we were flying out on Friday morning at the crack of dawn, like I’m leaving home at three-thirty in the morning. So I’ve gone home to go to bed at ten and it had gone backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards, and I come to the conclusion that there are two outcomes to this.
One is she gets a deal or two out of the DUP. Because, again, I was in the chamber when she announced it, when she did her announcement in the chamber, but nobody blew up. It was amazing. All the ERG people who I later find were relying on my judgement were sitting there calmly and Rees-Mogg is being nice and so the explosion is not happening. I get to that and I think, ‘Well, actually, you know, if she doesn’t get a deal, the government is going to fall, that’s what’s going to happen.’
So, she rings me up. I’m literally getting into bed. She rings me up and says, ‘The DUP are refusing this, this and this, and this.’ And I think I just said to her, ‘Prime Minister, you are the Prime Minister, you are doing the negotiation, you have to make the call. And if they won’t accept it, tell them you’re going to do it anyway.’ And she did. And they folded. So it’s sort of my fault they folded in a way. Butas always with these things, I don’t know how you do them, but I draw a tree diagram. A logic diagram and try and assign probabilities and try and get the whole universe of outcomes. And there were only really two outcomes.
So we go do that. We come back. It’s not a very good arrangement, the outcome, and I can see nightmares, the long tree diagram is a nightmare, getting on for the border problem. So I come back and I said ‘It’s a statement of intent.’ Now for me, a statement of intent is a promise. ‘We’re going to do it.’ But I had in my mind then what they are actually going through now, which was we may have to argue over the detailed interpretation. Remember, she’d said to me, ‘This is full alignment of outcomes.’ And the paper didn’t quite pin that down.
But nevertheless, I wanted to keep as much flexibility as possible – and it was not legally binding. This statement, it is an initial deal. And the Brussels echo chamber got very agitated about it, but not the Commission, who would know exactly. They’d know me well enough, they’d know exactly what I meant by it. And they would also know I was curving the edges to keep our game in-play here. So, that’s fair enough. Listen, if you do that job, you’ve got to be willing to be shot at from all sides. So that was that. Although it comes back in February.
Chequers, and resignation
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Yes, and then at the same time I imagine Whitehall started to work on the Chequers plan?
David Davis (DD): Not straight away, I don’t think. And, of course, there’s been various characterisations of the final Chequers meetings. One is they wrote a completely different white paper. I don’t think they’re quite that devious. I mean, the policy unit, the European policy unit inside Number 10, was clearly trying to run its own show, there’s no doubt about that, and cutting me out of meetings.
UKICE: So you weren’t that deeply involved as they put this thing together?
DD: Well, the best way to understand it is to go through it piece by piece. So, we come out of the Brussels discussions. I sit down with them and go through quite what had been going on in that last week, because the first thing she should have done when she got this assertion from Brussels on full alignment is call me, not the last thing. So we had that sort of conversation. I’m always very polite, a polite conversation, but there was a little bit of friction… And I said, ‘Right, we’re going to have a meeting every Monday, and do a sort of check.’
So, then from January on. Up until then, there had been a sort of, there’d been the period with Fi and Nick there, and that was easy because I could just keep day-by-day control. There’d been the period of the financial negotiation, which was fine because it went pretty much as I wanted it to go. There was kite-flying in the FT for a £100 billion and so on, which was shot down and so on. Then, in the autumn, some of the focus tended to be a bit more domestic because of the humble address issues. But, nevertheless, I thought, ‘Fine.’ As far as I was concerned, we are slightly spinning wheels to run up against the end stop and that was fine.
But when the Irish thing happened, which for me was the single big mistake, I said, ‘Right, we’re going to have to have a weekly meeting. To just check everything.’ And we start down that route. And Jeremy Heywood probably – I’m guessing, I think Jeremy Heywood –was the author of the idea of having basically the strategy meeting, the six of us. Boris, myself, Hammond, Lidington, et al.
We had all-day arguments over the right to diverge. That was the phrase, ‘The right to diverge’. We produced a document that I could live with at the end of the day, which was briefed. And I don’t know who by because I didn’t brief it. DExEU was very, very assiduous under my instruction about not briefing because I wanted to avoid getting a bigger gap with Number 10. It was briefed by somebody as Davis’s victory, in The Mail or The Express or something like that, and the story spread, as they do.
That’s the point at which I think they started writing the second policy. I don’t know for sure, but it seems to me. If you are the other side of this argument, that makes sense. If you suddenly found the Prime Minister’s gone along with Davis saying ‘The right to diverge is fundamental’, and you don’t believe that’s possible, which is where they were, then that’s where I think it starts to diverge. And by now, I’ve got weekly meetings reviewing each week’s decisions, if you like, and she would go through what she wanted to say that week and so on. We’d talk it through.
Now, these weekly meetings, these bilaterals as they called them, they’re in addition to a whole load of other meetings, you know, the EUXT meetings and so on. But this was just specific to my concerns. Sometimes Raoul would be in them, and sometimes they were one-on-one. The way it would go is she’d say something, which would come from her policy people. I’d say, ‘That doesn’t work,’ and I’d say, ‘Give it to me for two days and I’ll turn it into language that works.’ And it would go back, and that always worked until eventually it didn’t. It worked most of the time.
We had one of these meetings about the backstop – around the withdrawal agreement and the backstop. This meeting, they came up with a set of proposals which were really a white flag, frankly, and a red flag for me. So we went through some things and this, that and the other. And I said, ‘Right, well, we need to put some conditions on this.’ This is the failure backstop, basically. ‘It needs to be strictly time-limited and in our unilateral control.’ Those two things were very, very important.
‘Before we formally table it, we need to be clear on the governance implications. Who makes the decisions on all the elements of it,’ which they hadn’t done. It cannot be an extension of alignment on goods. We need to get our mutual recognition approach agreed to, the mutual recognition being there, and in place for day one. My concern there was we couldn’t start negotiating with anybody until we got control of that. We must announce our customs Plan A before we announce the backstop. That was part of the Sofia meeting (a bilateral with Leo Varadkar on the margins of the EU-Western Balkans summit in May 2018).
And we must be clear when we do announce this plan on the backstop, that it will not hold in the event of no deal. Anyway, we then had a EUXT strategy meeting, basically a Cabinet committee meeting. She went through it, and I went through these things in the meeting because we’d agreed them at the bilateral, and she said, ‘And we must take on board all of David’s considerations.’ The next week, they ignored the considerations, her team.
So I went back to see her. I said, ‘We agreed this last week and we can’t do this this way.’ She said, ‘I didn’t think you really cared about it.’ I said, ‘Prime Minister, this is the central piece of the argument,’. And so I got the Cabinet minutes, the Cabinet committee minutes, and they had no reference to my objections at all. And so I placed a formal objection to the Cabinet committee meeting minutes, and that, in truth, was the point at which my decision to resign started.
UKICE: Was your personal relationship with the Prime Minister starting to get more fractious at this point?
DD: No, it was never fractious.
UKICE: When was this Cabinet committee? Can you remember, not the date but the month?
DD: The clue you’ve got in there is it’s before Sofia, before our meeting in Sofia, so you can find that. I made a point, the occasional points of friction, but I made a point through all of this process, there’s no point making enemies or hating people. They’re doing what they think is right. They may be wrong, but they’re doing what they think is right. So you have to treat people with the respect due to that. They might make my job impossible, but it doesn’t matter in terms of how you treat them.
You know, this will be important when it comes to the resignation, which I’m sure you want to hear about, where the calculation there is not personal at all. Anyway, so I’m beginning to think, ‘This is not going to work.’ So I pressed back and pressed back and they fiddled with the language, but not very much. And I think, well, you know-
UKICE: The ‘They’ is always the Prime Minister’s Europe advisory team in Number 10?
DD: Yes, basically.
UKICE: Led by Gavin Barwell as Chief of Staff and so on?
DD: Barwell, Denzil Davidson and others, there was a group of them. This is coming back to Number 10, and it was quite interesting. After I said, ‘Alright, I’ll live with that,’ I didn’t say ‘for the moment’, but that’s what I meant. There was a briefing to one of the papers saying, ‘We’ve stitched Davis up like a kipper.’ I thought this was a very unwise thing to say publicly, because even if you think you have – and, you know, they had got their own way, to be fair, on that particular tactic – I thought, ‘That’s very unwise.’ They were getting sort of cocky, really, and silly, and very unwise.
Bearing in mind, we’re trying to write the official white paper during this process, in the middle of all of this. That is why it’s taking a huge amount of time. Not because it’s particularly contentious, 90 per cent of it is straightforward. It’s the 10 per cent which becomes the point of contention with the eventual Chequers outline. The genesis of that was Chequers on the Friday. We had our Monday bilateral. That’s when I see what is, in effect, the Chequers chapter for the white paper, and I think, ‘This doesn’t fly at all.’
I go through my normal thing, explain why it differs, I said, ‘Well, let me have a go, and I’ll try to rewrite it to make it tolerable, I’ll have a go.’ Can you get it sent to me? So, it’s sent to me, but not until Wednesday. Now, whether that’s deliberate or whether they haven’t quite finished drafting it, I don’t know. So, since we know what’s coming, Raoul and I drafted the rejoinder. So the rejoinder goes back in an hour. I don’t know these precise times but I’d imagine it arrives at noon. They get the rejoinder back at one, and we have a ‘No’ by two.
So they’ve decided and they’re not going to budge at all, so just a straight no. And I think, ‘Well, this is not going to deliver what anybody would call Brexit. It will become Brexit in name only.’ I’ve used every possible piece of diplomacy, charm, argument, irritation, annoyance, there’s a whole spectrum and I’ve used everything, and they haven’t shifted from a strategy that’s bound to fail. And what’s more, it’s plain to me that the Cabinet will go with what she’s proposing. I reckon I’ll be lucky if I get three, four, or five in favour of my counter argument.
So, on Thursday, I call my ministers and I bind them all to secrecy and I say, ‘There’ll be a Chequers meeting tomorrow. The proposal they came up with won’t work. I will need to resign, but that won’t be tomorrow. You, (Robin) Walker, have to stay, whatever you want to do, you stay. We need continuity in the department.’ Baker instantly volunteers to go with me. He’d been dying to for a while, I suspect.
Suella (Braverman) is agonised. She’s only just arrived. And I say to her, ‘Look, you’ve been here too short a time for it to matter either way. If you resign, people will think you’ve got a great point of principle and you’ve got lots of time to get your career back, but, if you don’t resign, no one is going to blame you.’ So, you know, it’s entirely your call, and in fact I had at least two conversations with her after that where she frets over what to do. She basically did resign with Raab, I think, later on. I talk it over with my press handlers and my wife and so on, and say, ‘Right, that’s the process’ and Raoul comes with me to Chequers.
UKICE: Why did you decide you wouldn’t walk, apart from the fact that you’d have to get a taxi, at the meeting itself?
DD: I’ll explain that in a second. I am altogether too familiar with frontbench resignations. But, I go to Chequers, and there are basically four meetings. There’s a what you might think of as a skirmish meeting beforehand, which Boris causes a fuss at and I just wave through. I’m not going to have the fight there. We then have the Cabinet meeting, a full formal Cabinet meeting.
Raoul is excluded. Very interesting, that. He’s often allowed to come into Cabinet meetings. Raoul is excluded. I thought, ‘There’s no point making a fuss because I don’t actually want to incorporate him into my departure for his own good.’ And if I make a fuss about it, he’s going to be nailed too closely to me and, in fact, he did stay on after I went, in Number 10.
So we have the meeting. The Prime Minister speaks first, pretty much exactly as you’d expect. Then Lidington speaks next to support her. That’s perfectly normal Cabinet tactics. Then I speak. I make four points of objection. Then she calls Boris and Boris is caught unawares because he thought she was going to go back to somebody else and then him.
So he’s rather disorganised. He doesn’t really make a very good argument at all. He just said, ‘Oh, I agree with David.’ It’s all quite funny, really. And then they go round the table and all the supposed Brexiteers side with her. Gove does, Fox does.
Then she gets to Esther McVey, who objects. Quite vehemently actually. They go around, they get to Andrea Leadsom, who lays into it left and right for about five minutes, a really fierce attack on the proposal, and then ends with the words, ‘But I will support you, Prime Minister.’ Oh, Grayling came before her. I left out Grayling. I’m only picking the ones who deviated at all from the party line. Grayling basically says he agrees with both, largely. And then she comes to Penny Mordaunt, who is last, she’s had time to organise herself, and she makes a very cogent speech, agreeing with me, and saying, ‘I would recommend we make the following amendments, to take on board David’s concerns.’
And they don’t, and that’s that. Then we go on with the rest of the day. I’ve got a couple more speeches to make about the tactics of delivering the case out in the member states. Because one of the things that Number 10’s control process does is cripple the capital diplomacy element of it. It completely cripples it. It’s all relied on the Sherpa network. It doesn’t work. Anyway, and so we do that, we have a perfectly amicable day. I wind up Julian (Smith) a bit, who was the Chief Whip at the time, because they’d issued something like ‘You’ve got to hand your phones in, you have to get a taxi home’ and so on.
I said, ‘You know, Julian, if I thought that came from you, I’d resign on principle right now and walk out,let alone taxi out.’ And he said, ‘Well, no, it wasn’t us,’ but of course it was them. I was just teasing him. But, the answer to your question, why – why later rather than sooner? Well, the first thing is you’ve got to understand the purpose. To quote Boris Johnson, if I had not resigned, neither would he. His words to me. Neither would he, and we’d both be sitting around the table doing Withdrawal Agreement 14 by now.
This is what he said to me just earlier last year, and he’s right. So, essentially, the only way to get a proper Brexit was to break this, and I thought there would be an 80 per cent probability – maybe more – that if I went she would go at some point. Not immediately, but at some point. And I thought party discipline would fracture because the ERG were only being supportive for as long as I was there. To some extent the DUP as well, actually. Not out of any particular affinity or loyalty to me, but they generally trusted me to blow the whistle if it went wrong. Which it had. What I didn’t know, or I certainly didn’t predict, was the way party discipline on the other side would really, really fall to bits with Cabinet Ministers taking different views.
And so I thought, how do I deliver the outcome which is as clean as possible and doesn’t become highly personalised or embittered or whatever? And there are two things necessary for that. One is to take the control of the agenda away from Number 10. If you leave during the meeting then you can’t do that. Because while you’re in the taxi to the station, and while you’re on the train, they’re briefing. So a simple thing really. The second thing is a bit more subtle. Every single newspaper in Britain has an agenda on this subject. And I’d become pretty efficient at predicting what the headline would be in every paper after every negotiating round we had, every battle internally and so on.
And what would have happened if I’d allowed it to come out on a newspaper timetable, which is what the evening of Friday would have been, it would have been in the Saturday newspapers and the Sunday newspapers. You would have got the polemical stance of every single newspaper played through the mechanism of my resignation. That’s an incredible mess and there’s really no way of calculating out all the consequences of that.
A simpler outcome is that I let them play their exit game, and you’ve got one of the people who’d been made to eat the gruel put on the Marr programme. They knew I wouldn’t do it. You could predict what would happen if you just left it clean: they’d brief it as a successful meeting, and there’d be lots of people back here thinking, ‘What happened? How did we get to this point?’ and so on. But they wouldn’t do anything at that stage and they wouldn’t have the data. But if I did it at ten-thirty on Sunday night, too late for the Monday papers to pick it up properly, Sunday for the Monday papers.
One of the differences of weekly timetables on these things is that the daily papers often go to bed quite late in the days of electronic news type settings, but, Sunday, most of the political journalists write their copy off the back of Andrew Marr, or sometimes Sophy Ridge, and they’re back having lunch with their families by lunchtime. Nobody’s on the desk at ten-thirty at night. I didn’t leak it at ten-thirty. I was intending it to come out after eleven. Number 10 leaked it I think to The Times. Anyway, but what I could control was the electronic media the next day. The guaranteed slot on ten past eight Today Programme, and I get a good 15 minutes of that up against John Humphrys.
I get a guaranteed slot with (Laura) Kuenssberg on BBC News. And with ITV.So I would control the electronic media. So, by the time they got to their print deadline the next day, as it were, the story has moved on. And set in the crystal that I wanted to set it in. In addition, I use the Sunday – I went to Silverstone with a member of my family on a long-ago booked visit to the Grand Prix.
While we were doing that, while she was driving me to Silverstone, I called the various Cabinet members who I thought would get the first telephone calls from the press. And who would I start with?
DD: Boris. He would be the one who would get the most attention. So I took a risk and I gave Boris 12 hours’ notice. I won’t recount the exact words to you because they would be very embarrassing to him. But he wasn’t enthusiastic about resigning. Unsurprising to me, but, it was going to happen, it’s just how long it took. Bear in mind, Boris had been embarrassed a few weeks earlier by not resigning over Heathrow. And so if he didn’t resign over this, his position in this great debate of the age would be subordinated. So I knew he would have to go. So I gave him the most time to think. I thought it was the only fair thing to do. I called the others and I said, ‘I don’t recommend you jump too. We’re not going to bring the bloody government down.’ But I called the others and told them, and that’s what I did in the course of the day. Now, that told me that the most likely story on Monday would be Boris. Is he going? Is he not going? If he decided to go, I mean, he could. What are the three options?
He could have sort of jumped the gun and gone first, which is a risk I was taking, but I didn’t think he would. He could have gone at the same time, which would have made the impact a little bit bigger, but frankly, it’s quite hard to get bigger than every headline. Or he could delay, in which case he would be the story. And so the story would go from, ‘What’s wrong with this deal?’ to Boris going as well, reinforcing what’s wrong with it. So that’s the secret, really. And then out of that, to make the point, I voted against the first withdrawal agreement, but I voted for the other two.
UKICE: Had you spoken to Dominic Raab before he took the job?
DD: I spoke to Raab before he was appointed. He asked me whether he should take the job, and I said yes.
Brexit reflections from the backbenches
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Did you consider a leadership challenge at that point?
David Davis (DD): No. I mean, look, the purpose of this exercise was to change the policy. There were a load of people, as I said before, who approached me. A load is an exaggeration, ten or eleven. Ten or eleven MPs and a few other people approached me, a few dozen other people, outsiders, financiers, that sort of people, at the time of the election. And I said no, because I felt a duty of loyalty to her, to at least try to help her deliver. Arguably, the historians would say that was a mistake. I don’t know but that was my judgment. When we got to this stage, my entire calculation was around what would force the outcome I wanted, which essentially was either an abandonment of this policy, which actually in a way I thought she would survive. Or she was removed and the policy was replaced by her successor, who would be a Brexiteer.
There were more in play by then, as it were. Then, I can’t remember when it was. I can’t remember the exact date. Probably a week later, I was driving through Finchley at the time in a traffic jam, and I started getting calls to say, ‘Will you stand against her?’ You can guess the wing of the party that was doing this, you know? And I said no because the trick when you’re trying to do proper tactical planning is to simplify the logic tree.
The logic tree is always more complicated than you predict. There’s always something you haven’t thought of. So the main trick is to keep it as simple as possible so you can then give the maximum amount of thought to each of the branches so that when one of the branches grows another twig, you’re ready for it, right?
In the army, they talk about having a ‘think evil session’ and you all sit down about the operating base or whatever, and you do all the plans and you all think what can go wrong and you think X can go wrong, so what will we do? Okay. You think Y can go wrong, and so what can we do in that? Okay. I think Z can go wrong and we think what we can on that. Actually, Q goes wrong, but because we all have talked to each other, we basically know what we’re going to do about Q as well. Any sort of smart political tactical planning takes that on board. So, to throw in a leadership bid at that time would have made it too complicated and make the odds of my preferred outcome possibly less. Imagine, for example, you have a leadership bid and she wins. She’s reinforced her deal. You see, what has to happen is the deal itself has to fail, which is what eventually happened.
UKICE: Given that, why did you vote for it at the second time of asking?
DD: Because my opposition was not necessary. There were about 25 or so youngsters who wanted to support the Prime Minister. One or two of them said to me, ‘If you vote for it. That gives us cover.’ That was it. It was nothing to do with the actual outcome. It was just me being nice to some people.
UKICE: Were you still in touch with the Prime Minister during this process?
DD: No, barely at all. Very, very little communication.
UKICE: Do you think you would have returned to government if Dominic Raab had won? Was it a conversation you had?
DD: Probably not. I’m easy about government. When people ask me about being in government, I say that being in government means you are powerful in one sector but you have to go along with everything else. No matter how much you hate it, you have to go along with everything else. If you are a backbencher, well if you’re me anyway, you can have a fight on overseas aid, which we’ll be doing this week, and we will eventually win that fight in due course. Not soon enough. People will die. You’ll have a fight on ID cards. You’ll have a fight on badly-designed Covid policy.
You can actually have more effect across the board, and I could earn more money outside of government.There’s no material impact on me at all, really. And so I’m comfortable. If Boris had said, ‘I need a Chancellor,’ it would have been quite difficult to turn down. But he’d already allocated all his top jobs. I said to him, ‘Don’t make the mistake of offering me a job, Boris. I don’t want to turn you down.’
UKICE: You’re obviously a strong defender of the rights of Parliament. So what did you make of the whole prorogation episode?
DD: I think the courts were wrong on that. I think the courts were wrong for a variety of reasons. I think Baroness Hale overplayed her hand, apart from anything else. But that’s another matter. But if you look back, the most abusive use of prorogation. Have a guess. Who do you think it was? Who do you think I think it was? Prorogation was Attlee. Attlee prorogued four times in almost as many months in his battle with the Lords, taking powers away from the Lords. And he was basically forcing them to buckle and to bend the knee and in another context to buckle. And nobody argued you couldn’t do it, and I think this was a very bad conflict for the courts to pick because the courts normally avoid clashes with Parliament, because Parliament is representing the will of the people.
And here Boris enforcing prorogation was sort of doing that, too, Hence the election, hence the outcome and all the rest of it. So I think the courts were wrong on that. And, of course, it’s created a whole new series of problems because there’s a generation of MPs who think we should clip the wings of the courts, wrongly. That’s another one of my battles coming up in the next year or so.
UKICE: On judicial review?
DD: Yes, the protection of judicial review, because judicial review is incredibly important. I’ve won one against the government already and I’m going to win another one. And I may have to bring a third, on overseas aid, and I hope to win all three of them. And the government will get crosser and crosser, but it’s because they’re not obeying the law themselves.
UKICE: What do you think of the deal that Boris Johnson eventually did?
DD: It’s not brilliant. It’s marginally better than no deal. It’s a bit better than no deal. My expectation is a lot of wrinkles will be knocked out of it in the next three or four years. I mean, you’ve got wrinkles on fisheries and you’ve got wrinkles all over the place. But the biggest one is Ireland, obviously. Now, when we were looking at Ireland in the first place, we looked at how we made the border invisible between the north and the south. And Boris kept going, ‘Well, the technology will save us.’ You don’t need technology to save you.
In the early days before it became politicised, when Enda Kenny was still the Taoiseach, his Head of Customs said to his Senate, ‘We can maintain an invisible border without any changes.’ I think it already is. Smuggling is the greatest local pastime there.My family originally hail from Armagh, probably some relatives of mine are smuggling right now. So he said that. The head of HMRC said the same to the British. They only both changed tack when the Taoiseach changed and when Philip Hammond intervened.
During the election, Philip was convinced he was going to be sacked. I don’t know if he told you that. But he was convinced he was going to be sacked. We had a conversation during the election and I said, ‘We’d better have a meeting and talk about this after the election.’ He said, ‘I’ll be fired.’ I said, ‘Don’t be fucking ridiculous.’ Literally that’s what I said. He said, ‘No, I’ll be fired.’ I said, ‘No, you won’t,’ and he said, ‘They’ve made it plain they’re going to sack me.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll go and talk to her, you won’t be fired.’ But that was in his mind.
And when he came back, he was in a different mood. All the little bits… There’s so much of this I can’t really have time to tell you, but these personality interplays were quite important. Philip and I are old friends of long standing. He probably told you. I don’t know. In fact, he rang me up and told me about your interview. He said he’d told you that, ‘You’re the sort of person who’d kick nine bells out of you and you’d go to the pub and laugh about it.’ Maybe or maybe not, but we’re old friends, and I wasn’t going to have that (sacking) happen. But he thought he was going to be fired, and that changed his mood. And I think HMRC was basically given instruction not to co-operate. That’s what it felt like, from the election onwards. HMRC’s rate of progress would have disgraced a snail.
So, to come back to now, there are two ways out of this. One is they slightly soften the deal, so some of the border effectively gets shouldered back on the real border, or the other is they use the same techniques they were going to use to make it invisible, going north/south, going east/west.
They had ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition). Huge amounts of ANPR, and they know every bloody car that goes north from south. It’s been there since the days of the Troubles. That’s why it was put there in the first place. So imagine pretty much everything goes north to south. They don’t measure a trailer load of whisky or cigarettes that gets pulled by a tractor across a farm field, of course not, but they get everything that goes by road. They have trusted trader schemes, which already work quite well. The regulatory border is not the physical border. If you import, say, Chinese painted toys into the European Union, nobody checks the paint has got no lead in it at the border.
It’s done at the trading standards office in Bromley or for that matter in Vichy. That’s where it’s done. You see, this lack of understanding, time and again we ran into this lack of understanding, in the media in particular, but also around politicians who’ve never handled the border properly in their lives. And of course, the Treasury weren’t about to volunteer that this was the case. So they will work out a deal, and, along the way, there’ll be rows.
I rather approve of David Frost because he’s tough enough to make it work.All you need to do to see what May could have done is look at what Frost did the moment he took over. Because he started cutting up rough and they started backing off slightly. And that never happened to them during May’s time. So what’ll happen is, there will be lots and lots of flash points, which will sort of come to nothing, and then there’ll be a three-month delay in the solution of that piece, and then that piece, and then that piece. So, they’ll get there eventually. They’ll do something similar on fisheries. You’ve got to understand fisheries are a very political industry anyway.
The only cod trawler is a thing called the Kirkella, it operates out of Hull. It’s a huge thing. It has precisely twelve British people on it and they’re all self-employed. And they’ve got twelve million pounds of quota sitting unused in one part of the Norwegian waters. So the recent panics were less salient than was claimed. So, all of this has got to be knocked out piece by piece. So, it will work out fine. What’s a bit irritating and, you know, there’ll be loads of Remainers saying, ‘I told you so,’ but what they won’t say ‘I told you so’ about is what happened with vaccines.
Now, why do vaccines matter? Obviously they matter because thousands of lives are saved. But what it also matters for is that it’s become an exemplar of how, in new industries, the UK can lead innovation. Remember I told you about the Vienna speech. In new industries, the Vienna speech is not really relevant – or not so relevant – because in new industries, we are going to be setting some of the standards ourselves. And our aim is to be there first and set the standards and provide the products. And that’s what the vaccine operation shows, that you can do that.
And you can do it with gene technology. You can do with artificial intelligence. You can do it with self-driving cars. The best city in the world to practise self-driving cars is London. You’ll lower the accident rate and you’ll improve the average travel time because there won’t be the stop/start. So we’ve got lots of advantages we can use. And what the vaccine thing shows is just a little rather dramatic example of how that can be done. I didn’t expect that to happen for years, frankly.
And what’s wrong with (the deal) is largely what he inherited, which goes right back to 3 December 2017. And that’s why I told you that story in detail. You see the point? The resignation worked, is what I’m saying.
UKICE: Yes. Can I just finish with a couple of questions about DExEU? What was it like setting up this thing from scratch? It must have been a nightmare.
DD: Yes, a bit, and it was made more difficult by the fact that quite a few senior people didn’t want to play. There were a lot of very good people who wanted to come and work for us who weren’t allowed to, basically, or were diverted, said, you know, ‘Don’t do that, it’ll ruin your career. Here’s a promotion.’ I think it was slightly compounded in the detail by the fact that Olly was doing two jobs, and he wanted DExEU to be a small part of his job, not a big part of his job. So that tended to make it less effective than it should have been.
You saw that again when I asked for him to be moved and he took with him three or four of my best people. Now, again, I don’t blame them. They’re going to work for the Prime Minister rather than the Secretary of State. But, nevertheless, that was not optimal.
So, quite difficult, but I think it was probably the right strategic decision to do it, probably because of the problems with the Foreign Office, really. But the biggest difficulty in truth in all that time was she should have appointed a Brexiteer Foreign Secretary, which she did. And a Brexiteer Chancellor, which she didn’t. Those are the two things she should have done. Then the whole process would have been a hell of a lot simpler.
UKICE: And the final thing, you sort of hinted at this. How well do you think the civil service performed in delivering Brexit?
UKICE: In what way? Is that because you felt there was a Remainer bias, that you hinted at earlier?
DD: Well, bias is the wrong word. Mindset is a better word. It’s like that party conference speech. Theresa May’s mindset was ‘These people care about immigration.’ If you think the people who have given you this instruction are a bunch of racist bigots and idiots, and that’s not too much of an exaggeration of the perception in some cases, and you really despise the task, then you’re going to push it down the batting order.
The entire civil service has been bled dry of good people. That’s not to say there aren’t very good people there. There are. There are some brilliant people. But you’ve got to be both brilliant and be passionate about working for your country, and the two weren’t always true. The most brilliant aren’t always of that instinct. So you’ve got to have that. The other thing that made it worse was Blair’s time. Blair diminished the civil service in a variety of ways, inadvertently.
He appointed special advisers whose advice he took over the heads of people who have been ambassadors for 30 years. Whatever reason for it, that caused a bleeding of various departments of state where the special advisers were too powerful. And famously, of course, he gave the right of command to Campbell, and so on. So there’s that, which made it worse.
The one other trivial thing he did, he changed the rule, which up until then had been you cannot become a Permanent Secretary unless you have served in a minister’s private office. And he instantly debilitated every private office after that. Because working in a private office is a nightmare, it’s a seven day a week, minimum 12 hours a day job. You’re on-call all the time. He’d be running a family at the same time, which is difficult – all those things. And if you didn’t need to do it to be permanent secretary, why would you? And so the calibre of private offices went down. So, those things together.
And again, I was lucky with my private office, but those things together have eaten into the calibre of Whitehall. The Whitehall of the Thatcher years did some incredibly unpopular things. I’m sure quite a lot of Permanent Secretaries thought she was mad.
But they did it, and they had the calibre to do it. But there was a lot of passive resistance and it didn’t take the form of refusing to do things, it just took the form of saying, ‘Yes, sir,’ and it didn’t happen.
But now think to yourself, if you’ve got more than you can do in any day, all the time, seven days a week, which was the norm, it’s what I expected. What you don’t want to be doing is thinking, ‘Have I progress chased this and this and this?’ And the answer was, of course I never did. I didn’t have time. And that’s quite important when you’re, for example, doing no deal planning, which nobody wants to do. Nobody wants to think about it, like a child hiding in a corner, that’s the sort of psychological mindset. So it’s a bloody miracle we got out of it as we did, frankly. And it is a sizeable compliment to people like Steve Baker, Robin Walker, and civil servants like Tom Shinner, that they managed to get a reluctant population of civil servants and ministers to do as good a job as they did. The country should be very grateful to them.