The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

The Coalition and the Cameron Government

UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Was it as important as some people claimed when David Cameron took the Tories out of the European People’s Party (EPP), in terms of setting the stage for what came next?

Denzil Davidson (DD): I think it was not first order. It was very important, but it wasn’t crucial, it wasn’t decisive. History could have been very different. We could still be a member of the EU and he would still in the past have taken us out of what was actually technically EPP-ED [EPP-European Democrats]. The Conservatives were – and one or two other parties – in the ED wing of the EPP, but it was very much an adjunct to the EPP mansion.

So, that said, did it affect things? Yes, it did. He knew Merkel and Sarkozy much less well than he would have done otherwise, and various other centre-right leaders. Famously, he wasn’t there for very important moments, like the EPP pre-Council Summit they had in the autumn of 2011, ahead of the December veto Council. It meant that ties grew weaker between the Conservative Party and sister parties of the centre right.

And if the Conservatives had been embedded in the EPP family through all those years, then communication would have been much deeper, understanding would have been much broader, there would have been much more willingness to help. The effect went on even into Brexit. If Theresa May had been an EPP member, and I think this was something she was not entirely unconscious of, she’d have been in many more meetings, where they would have been on sister party terms.

UKICE: The other thing that’s said about Cameron a lot is that he incited more dislike of the European Union by kicking up such a fuss about it himself. Was there a discussion of that at the time?

DD: I think he would say that he wasn’t trying to exploit it to win points back home, generally anyway. He was giving vent to genuine feeling. And, at the time, he felt very much that he was having to defend British interests. And sometimes about some stuff that was relatively out of the blue, such as on the MFF [Multi-Annual Financial Framework].

I think one of his more pungent things was when the Commission tried a last-minute attempt to break open the MFF payment ceiling, which I think he felt was not really abiding by the spirit of what had been agreed. And much of the agenda at the time was about measures to deal with the Eurozone crisis which cut across our financial services interests, and we often had to push back hard to assert the non-Eurozone interest in these measures. He felt a lot of the time he had to battle to defend Britain, so he just gave vent about what actually he felt at the time.

Now, one might argue that some of those remarks might have been made without thinking of a strategic goal, and that’s a fair argument. I think I can remember myself sometimes saying, ‘Are you sure you want to say that, because…?’

He really wasn’t, generally speaking anyway, trying to wind up the anti-Europeans, or trying to score points like that, it wasn’t that cynical at all.

UKICE: Are you one of those that thinks that a referendum was inevitable, and it was only a question of when?

DD: Yes. A senior civil servant tells me, ‘You have to say that, because you’ve got to live with yourself.’ But I do believe it. Because the fact is the fight against the referendum had been lost in the Conservative Party, and it was perfectly clear that whoever succeeded David Cameron would be in favour of a referendum and, at some point, they would become Prime Minister, and then that would be it.

It was also clear that the Conservative Party’s dynamic was taking it towards a place where the leader who did hold a referendum would have either argued for the UK to leave the EU from the outset, or would have made impossible demands, from which the only place they could have gone is campaigning for Leave.

So, my view at the time, and it remains my view, but I’m aware there may be an element of subjectivity here, is that the cause of keeping the UK in the EU was better served by having a referendum when you had a Prime Minister who wanted to keep the UK in the EU than when you had an anti-European as Prime Minister, or someone who would be opportunistically anti-European.

UKICE: If you look at Bloomberg speech, the issues that David Cameron thought he was going to have a referendum about – eurozone ins and outs, and all those kinds of things – were not ultimately issues we had a referendum about. Was there any discussion at all of that, or was this just something for the future?

DD: The Bloomberg speech, which I was quite heavily involved in writing, set out, I think, the framework of the problem David Cameron wanted to deal with. And the problem was, basically, from memory, can you be in the EU and not be on a one-way track to a federal state? We wanted the answer to say, yes, you can carve out a place where you could be in the EU but you’re not on a one-way track to United States of Europe, or whatever.

And, in David Cameron’s mind, he was always attracted to the idea of British exceptionality. He was less interested in, or less persuaded of, the feasibility of a broader outer ring within EU membership and more persuaded that it would be easier to do it if it was just the UK. I didn’t really agree with him on that, but he was the Prime Minister!

And he sometimes used to say, after a European Council, ‘Basically, nearly everyone around that table wants more Europe and I want less Europe.’ Not no Europe, mind you, he didn’t want no Europe, at all.

UKICE: Actually, the Bloomberg speech was one of the occasions, pre-referendum, when he made a positive case, wasn’t it?

DD: Yes.

UKICE: Until that last page, it was a convincing case for membership. Was that deliberate?

DD: Yes, definitely. It was supposed to be, in an old-fashioned sense of the word, or genuine sense of the word, a positive Eurosceptic case for being in the EU, but having issues about the direction of political integration. And then saying, ‘Clearly there are pressures building, and that’s why we’re going to have a referendum, and I want to be in a place where I can campaign to keep the UK in the EU.’

UKICE: But by opening up the possibility that leaving was a sensible and realistic option, that someone like David Cameron could potentially advocate if renegotiation got nowhere, did the Foreign Office perceive that you were opening yourself up to of risk of leaving? Was there official advice that went to William Hague about what that risk might look like?

DD: There was some work by an official on what membership of the Single Market meant and what it didn’t mean. Because of the extreme sensitivity of the decision, not very many people knew about it. A lot of people had some idea of what was afoot. But it was in some ways, very, very tightly held indeed.

So, on the official side, the only people who knew were two people who of course are sadly dead now, Jeremy Heywood and Chris Martin. And Jon Cunliffe and Ivan Rogers and John Casson, who was then David Cameron’s private secretary for foreign affairs. Some others might well have had an idea of it, but they were the only ones that I know of who were fully in the picture.

I can certainly remember Jon (Cunliffe) telling me, ‘This could cast a serious pall over inward investment for some time, because of the uncertainty.’ As it happened, oddly it didn’t. But there were six months of debate about it, in the first half of 2012. So, it was a really agonised decision.

But the chief participants – David Cameron, William Hague and George Osborne – all came to the conclusion that one was inevitable. And, if it was inevitable, better to hold it on your own terms and take it and lead it the way you want than have it forced on you when you don’t want it to be forced on you, and have it shaped by others.

UKICE: Did George Osborne really come to that conclusion?

DD: My recollection is that he agreed that one was inevitable. My recollection is also that he was the most sceptical and most reluctant of the three of them, but it is also my recollection that he was persuaded that one was inevitable.

UKICE: So, by the time of the election, you’d moved to Brussels. Was there a pretty quick realisation in the Commission that, ‘Oh my God, this is really happening,’ after the election?

DD: There was a very swift realisation of that. And the negotiating team pretty swiftly got off the ground. Obviously, that wasn’t really my remit. Sometimes I spoke to Jonathan Hill about it, and gave him my views, and kept in touch with UKRep and people in Number 10 the UK’s Permanent Representation to the EU and the like.

And I think there was a lot of complacency, but there were some people who thought it was entirely possible that the UK might actually leave, who probably had a shrewder idea of the chances than many people in the UK did, or perhaps even I did.

The renegotiation and the referendum

UKICE: Do you have a sense of why it took so long after the election for the UK to set out its renegotiation position? I think it was in October when it finally came out.

DD: I would say that’s actually not very much time. That’s what, three months, to work out something huge. Bearing in mind, before then, the Government’s whole political focus was on the General Election because, if you don’t win that, then nothing else matters. And then, when they won it, then you’ve got to knuckle down and think about it. So, for something so momentous, I think three-odd months is not so long really.

UKICE: Were you involved in those discussions?

DD: Not really, no.

UKICE: Were you surprised though, sitting in Brussels, at the poverty of the UK ask?

DD: No, I wasn’t, it all seemed very much in line with what we’d been thinking about before I went to Brussels. I talked quite often to people like Ed Llewellyn, but no. And it seemed to be in the realms of the negotiable because I was thinking about how difficult and uphill achieving stuff would be. But it was also my view that they’d got themselves into a terrible muddle on the politics of migration in the EU, and often seemed to be promising the unnegotiable.

Whether they went and specifically asked for it, what they really wanted was something they weren’t going to get and that is the underlying truth that obviously fed into the referendum result we got.

UKICE: Did you have a sense in your own mind of what might be needed from the renegotiation for that to help make the referendum winnable? One of the interesting things about the renegotiation was how quickly the Remain side stopped talking about it, from about the Saturday after the European Council.

DD: I was a fair bit removed. And what happened was not hugely surprising. I think what I felt at the time, and I spoke to Jonathan Hill about this, was that, in politics, to win, you need things to be clear cut. And the problem was the outcome was not very clear cut. It’s very European, but if you’re trying to campaign on something you just need it to be clear. You can’t have things hedged, so they’re picked apart.

And I think, on the EU side, while you had some people from the Commission who were very clear about it, generally there was too much complacency. People didn’t realise what David Cameron was up against, domestically, and did not appreciate his political needs.

And the process didn’t work for the politics. You had what was agreed with the Commission coming out a fortnight before the final deal. And that was more towards the UK than potentially they would have ended up with. So, EU membership’s opponents had two weeks to kill the proposal. And, because you didn’t know where you’d end up, I think the Remain side weren’t able to fix their threshold of success.

So, I think then the failure to talk about the renegotiation speaks back to what I think was the biggest failing, which was after the general election – some might say before then – the failure to present a consistent argument about why a referendum was being held and what the threshold of success should be. So you frame the question, and you frame the answer as well. And that’s what you should do in politics.

And this is partly with hindsight, there was a perfectly good framed question and answer, which was, ‘The Single Market is great for our economy, and being in the EU is fantastic for our power in the world, but none of us want to be in a European super-state. As long as we can make sure that we’re not going to be in an EU super-state, we should stay in, and that’s going to be great for us. But otherwise, although it will be incredibly painful, we should think about leaving.’

And then you come back and say, ‘And here is what I’ve got, we’re not going to be a super-state,’ and you could make that argument very strongly, given what was negotiated. And you’d have already worked on the economic argument. But there was a lack of a strategic argument for some time.

And it was certainly my experience that, when I was there –  between the Bloomberg speech and when I went to Brussels in the beginning of November 2014 – what we now call the Brexiteers often successfully intimidated Number 10 into not broaching the positive arguments for the EU, for fear of the stink, the discord, that it would cause within the party when they had their eyes on winning the next election, and divided parties don’t win.

UKICE: Tactically did you ever think it would be easier to win a referendum without the renegotiation? If you hadn’t had to go through a renegotiation, having opened up the possibility that leaving was a viable option, even for someone like David Cameron, would it have been easier just to go straight on and say, ‘We know this thing needs reform, but we think we’ve got to stick with it’?

DD: You might well be right, but that isn’t how we thought at the time. And the reason why it isn’t how we thought at the time is that in the back of our minds we genuinely did have a question mark about the long-term viability of Britain’s membership of the EU. So we didn’t know whether it would be possible to be in the EU and not in the Eurozone and still be able to defend your interests.

And, I think if being in the EU really meant that you’d end up in the United States of Europe, many of those who did campaign to keep the UK in the EU would have campaigned the other way. So, actually, the renegotiation was something we really wanted because we wanted to be able to say, hand on heart, we should stay in the EU because you could be in the EU and not in a super-state, and we’re not going to have our interests trampled on because we’re not in the Eurozone.

And I personally think that what they achieved in the renegotiation was pretty substantive, from the protection of non-Eurozone countries’ rights and on no longer being signed up to the goal of ever closer union, which I think was symbolically extremely important. So, I think there could have been a good argument made that would have been believable to voters, it would have been serious. But there was no consistency of argument.

So, when you had this Balance of Competences Review, David Lidington and I hoped it would be a safe space, for businesses in particular, to talk about the benefits of being in the Single Market. But, again, the anti-EU folk on the Conservative backbenches successfully made Number 10 worried enough that they wanted it made as anodyne and ‘content-free’ as possible, which I think was a pity because it was a missed opportunity. It was David Lidington’s and my intent that it should form a building block towards the referendum campaign.

UKICE: What was it like, being in the Berlaymont, in the European Commission, while that referendum was going on?

DD: Well, kind of sweet and sad. Because most people in the Berlaymont are good cosmopolitan liberals, and most of them would say, ‘Gosh, I hope you guys stay.’ And the whole outlook is classically cosmopolitan liberal. But that’s not where our voters were.

The Commission, in many ways, is an ivory tower, not just vis-à-vis the UK, but many European countries. For better or worse, the world is full of people who worry about other things than our dear friends and former colleagues in the European Commission.

UKICE: Were you surprised that Jonathan Hill decided to go straight after the referendum?

DD: No.

UKICE: Should he have just stayed?

DD: No, he told me before, that that was what he would do. And I wasn’t surprised because he could not have imagined any other course of action as being honourable. He thought, if you are Britain’s Commissioner, and the country has voted to leave the EU, then how can you, as the most senior Brit in the EU institutional centre, and a political appointee, honourably stay? The British people might not know you exist. Nonetheless, they are giving the verdict on your office, so it would be dishonourable to stay.

UKICE: In that period, that summer post-referendum, can you just talk about the mood, both within the Commission and within the British delegation? It must have been a strange period.

DD: Yes. Obviously, the Brits in the Commission were often distraught and very angry. Their whole lives, their careers, and a lot of what they spent their life working for, and what they believed in, were smashed. There were non-Brits who had been thinking about it a lot, many of them were really thinking, ‘Well, you guys aren’t going to be part of this for much longer,’ in a perfectly civilised way.

And, until Theresa May was elected leader, there was a kind of pity at the political chaos, which was embarrassing. When you’ve got Greeks pitying you, it isn’t good.

I should add, and being slightly critical of the Commission, but democratic politics often has moments of chaos. And the Commission is rather sheltered from democratic politics, and sometimes looks down on it, in a way that I don’t think is always healthy.

UKICE: Presumably there was no expectation that the relationship would end up being anywhere near as distant as it has?

DD: I don’t think so. I mean, Ivan (Rogers) obviously foresaw everything. But, for most people, it has ended up worse than expected, I think.

The First May Government

UKICE: When you arrived in Number 10 in September 2016 you landed into a situation where Theresa May has become Prime Minister, the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) and the Department for International Trade (DIT) have been set up. How much had already been settled? Were you landing on a boat that knew where it was going, towards the party conference speech and Lancaster House?

DD: Well, I think Nick Timothy knew how he wanted things to go. The establishment of DIT turned out to be very important, in a way that I don’t think was talked through at the time, or Theresa May would have appreciated at the time. That was done obviously before I came, immediately after she became Prime Minister.

The institutional set-up turned out to be very important and didn’t really work, as we all know – but that’s partly because some of the politics just didn’t work. But the policy shape had not really been settled at that time. But I think, in those months, Nick Timothy played a decisive role. He had a very clear idea about what Brexit should be about and it was that sovereign, legislative and regulatory autonomy were extremely important. And distance from the EU was fine.

I think Theresa listened to him a great deal. I think she might have thought that elements of that were also compatible with elements of other things she wanted. And we had a kind of collective failure in Government at the time properly to understand the implications for Northern Ireland, for which I must share the guilt.

The only guy at the time on our side who really understood the Northern Ireland Brexit problem, and I didn’t listen to him enough, was David Lidington, and he went off to be Leader of the House of Commons. And I feel at fault that I didn’t confer more with him to think these things through. And officialdom also fell collectively short. That was a failure on the whole of the Government’s part.

UKICE: One of the comments about the setup at the time was that it looked as though being well-versed in EU thinking, having worked in the EU, was almost a disqualification for being an official advisor at that time. You’re an exception. Do you think that’s one reason why some of these implications weren’t thought through?

DD: Possibly. There’s a kind of Sultan’s will thing. Much of the civil service was trying to second guess the Sultan’s will, and in this case they thought the Sultan was the Brexiteers who, they thought, don’t really like people who had been involved with the EU. So, what we’ll do is choose people who have never had anything to do with the EU at all. And that sultan’s will phenomenon happens quite a lot in the civil service.

I’ve heard examples of a Secretary of State, who stopped a senior official getting a particular job, and the word then goes around that he isn’t to get any job, because the Secretary of State doesn’t like him. Which was, in this case, sad, and not at all what the Secretary of State wanted. But you get these kinds of whispers about the Sultan’s will. So, that is the approach that they did take with DExEU, and I don’t think it was helpful.

But in Number 10 you had a small unit, all of whom did know about the EU, and I was a part of that unit, and Peter Storr was there too, he certainly knows about the EU. So, it wasn’t intentional in that way.

UKICE: And how were the personal relationships working between Theresa May, David Davis, Olly Robbins doing his straddling role between Number 10 and DExEU, and then Ivan Rogers in Brussels?

DD: Well, in those days, Theresa May and David Davis got on well. Olly Robbins obviously found it quite difficult to work for potentially two masters. And I’m not sure it really did make sense to have a Sherpa and Permanent Secretary that DExEU was under, being double-hatted.

With Ivan, things started fine, but, very sadly, he and Nick did not hit it off and he was very blunt – he could have been even blunter – in meetings about the potential consequences of where things were going. In a way, that opened him up for people to undermine him with the Prime Minister. I did my level best to keep those relationships going as long as possible but, in the end, it didn’t work, sadly.

UKICE: On the substantive decisions that were taken, how involved, if at all, were you in the party conference speech in 2016?

DD: That was very much written by Nick and the substance was not negotiable. Peter Storr and I – although I can’t remember exactly the words we used – questioned whether it was wise at this stage. As I said, the substance was largely non-negotiable. I think we might have softened some of the language, managed to insert some slightly warmer language somewhere, but that was about it.

UKICE: It was interesting that she did the first speech on the Sunday.

DD: That was for a good political reason because they didn’t want the whole conference dominated by the question of, ‘Is she going to trigger, or isn’t she?’ So the idea was, and it was a good idea in terms of the political handling of the party conference, to get that out of the way at the start, then it’s done and you get to talk about everything else you want to talk about. And it worked, to that extent.

UKICE: What was the thinking about the timing of Article 50? Do you think the Prime Minister had any choice other than to announce that?

DD: I think she and David Davis conferred about the date. And one of the reasons for it was I think they thought there was a risk of legal challenge and, if they lost, they didn’t want the date to move. So, they did have the Gina Miller case, as it eventually turned out to be, in mind.

But she was under huge pressure from a big chunk of the party to get on with it. And the EU insisted on ‘No negotiation without notification.’ So, the pressure on her was very considerable.

UKICE: Did you ever debate the idea of preparing for no deal before we trigger Article 50, to be in the strongest possible negotiating position in the Article 50 talks?

DD: No. That said, I think it would have been better, before triggering, to have prepared the ground more on at least the structure of the talks. And Ivan certainly advised her to do that.

UKICE: And you said that the implications of DIT hadn’t been fully thought through when DIT was set up straightaway, when the Prime Minister came in. During this period, the period running up to the Lancaster House speech, did she still think some sort of customs union arrangement with the EU was compatible with running an independent trade policy?

DD: I think her thinking on customs at that stage was relatively uncrystallised. She wanted to be quite flexible on customs arrangements, as I think her speeches at the time showed. But it turned out that, politically, she had given a wide impression of parameters, certainly to people who wanted to be given an impression of parameters, so that she had closed off more of her room for manoeuvre than she had thought she had.

UKICE: And how significant was the voice of business at this stage? Was there a lot of engagement with the big business representative organisations?

DD: Not a great deal, that I remember, there was more later.

UKICE: And the decision to go for Article 50 without getting parliamentary permission that led to the Miller case. What was the thinking behind that?

DD: To be honest, I wasn’t central to it, and I can’t remember very much, and I’m going to be brutally truthful that I didn’t find it very interesting at the time. I didn’t think it really mattered very much either way because we were going to end up notifying. Whether we did it with Parliament voting on it or not, it was going to happen. In a way, it sort of turned out to be important because of the battles later on, but I’m afraid that was my, perhaps wrong, attitude at the time.

UKICE: Was there an internal debate about trying to use prerogative powers to trigger Article 50? And actually, more broadly, once the court case was a reality, was there a debate about whether or not, given the numbers and given the fact that there was that majority there anyway, whether it was worth going to court? For some Prime Ministers, going to court might seem like a good way to rally the base for a matter like this.

DD: I think it was initially assumed to be doable under prerogative powers and so why not, if it’s a legal challenge, it’s a legal challenge? I think it was thought not to be a bad thing. While it wasn’t done in order to generate a legal challenge, were there to be any legal challenge, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have fought it.

UKICE: For political reasons?

DD: Yes.

UKICE: You said that people weren’t spotting the Northern Ireland issue at this stage. Sitting in Number 10, what representations you were getting from the Irish Government?

DD: I wasn’t. This is something that I have, with hindsight, found puzzling. It would have been really helpful at that stage if someone from the Irish Embassy had said, ‘Let’s go for a drink and talk about this,’ but it never happened.

And I don’t know who they did speak to and in what terms, but I think it’s sad that there wasn’t a deeper and broader conversation upstream. And, had that been, that might have helped things a bit further downstream.

UKICE: But even in the confidence and supply negotiations with the DUP, the border issue wasn’t mentioned. So you weren’t alone.

DD: From memory, it was a bit later than that in the spring you began to see, ‘Crikey, this is a real problem.’

UKICE: Because there had been a letter from Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness about some of the implications for Northern Ireland, just before the Executive fell?

DD: Yes. It was March, or February at best, of 2017, that I really began to clock the extent of the problem. And I think all of us were too slow in waking up to the extent of the difficulty, which we shouldn’t have been. Because we knew about the Single Market and the customs union and trade. So I don’t know why we didn’t put what was certainly obvious to the Irish Government together.

UKICE: It’s interesting that the Northern Ireland Office, the Northern Ireland Secretary, wasn’t raising it.

DD: Yes.

UKICE: The Irish Government weren’t lobbying you? Because the Irish Government had been quite vocal, diplomatically, on all of this.

DD: Yes. I am sure there have been some people, but they didn’t reach out to me, and I don’t remember them having deep conversations with Peter Storr either. Which I think, with hindsight, is surprising. Because neither of us were unapproachable.

UKICE: And, of course, at a certain point then, we’re into the debate about the election. Were you involved in any of those conversations, firstly? And, secondly, do you agree that you needed a larger majority to get through all the things you needed to get through?

DD: I wasn’t part of the conversation, it was very, very closely-held. Obviously, David Davis and Philip Hammond were both lobbying her to go for one. I think it was the legislation after the Gina Miller case that convinced her that she did need a bigger majority. Would it have been nice to have had a larger majority? Would it have been good for her to get? Absolutely, this was always going to be extremely difficult, politically. And, if you can get a big majority, then why not?

But, as it turned out, if you’re going to inflict a General Election on the British public, you’ve got to have a credible reason why you’re doing so. And the Government at the time didn’t, and that’s one of the reasons why the majority was lost.

UKICE: The Article 50 legislation got a thumping majority in the Commons; the Lords, raised barely any objections and caved incredibly quickly. So why do you take the conclusion from that that, ‘I’ve got to have a big majority to get this through’?

DD: It’s possible that it was something else, but I think she looked at things and thought, ‘Actually, this could be really tight.’

And maybe there was another vote, or something like that, at the time, I can’t remember, I’m afraid. But she would have been right in thinking that Brexit would have been extremely difficult politically with the narrow majority she inherited, but of course without an overall majority it was even worse.

And the other thing that is worth thinking about is a lot of the atmosphere at the time was shaped by the fact that you had a Leader of the Opposition you couldn’t co-operate with because, from a centre right perspective  – if you’ve got the Leader of the Opposition who is a Kremlin-hugging terrorist cheerleader, who later turns out to be an anti-Semite as well, who has been against his country in every dispute – it’s quite hard to have a cross-party co-operative relationship on national interests. And that, from the start, I think shaped the evolution of Brexit. Because, if it had been anyone else, like Ed Miliband, who I’m sure Theresa would not have got on with at all, you could have had a smidgeon of a conversation where you might talk about the national interest in there.

UKICE: But there were sufficient numbers of Labour MPs, even by that point, who were perfectly clear that they weren’t bound by what Jeremy Corbyn said. You could have done it around the leader, if not with the leader.

DD: Yes, and we should have done more from the start.

UKICE: Just one further thing on the Article 50 letter. It was interpreted by some people as containing a veiled linkage on security co-operation. Was that the impression you intended to give from Number 10?

DD: Nick was the main author of that.

I think I might say that, if the view was that the UK was an important security player and provider in Europe and to be able to carry on playing that role, it would obviously be much better in the context of a good positive relationship. And this was a process that might turn out positively. So it wasn’t a threat, but it was a point.

And actually, given where we are now, it’s turned out to be right, because we are going to co-operate less than we ought to on our shared security, and information on our shared values. And that’s because the context, the overall relationship, is so bad.

The Second May Government

UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): The election didn’t deliver the majority that was hoped for. Did you think then that the Prime Minister has got to change tack and think of a different way of doing this? Did she have that option?

Denzil Davidson (DD): Well, obviously things were politically extremely difficult after that election. She had lost a great deal of authority and she no longer had a majority, so we all knew that it was a deeply divisive subject. So the first priority was to stabilise things within the Cabinet and the Conservative Party, and so a less diktat-led approach was needed, because that was not going to work.

I remember Gavin Barwell, who is a great man, came in as Chief of Staff. I said to him fairly early on, ‘Of course, we’ve got this stuff about no deal is better than a bad deal, but this Parliament is never going to allow a no deal.’ And I said, ‘By the way, I think, if anything, the majority of this Parliament if for a customs union.’ So we were clear fairly early on that parliamentary arithmetic had changed profoundly, so had the politics.

UKICE: But with no obvious consequent change of tactic?

DD: No. Well, obviously internally a more consensual approach, although that was challenging, because the Cabinet, with the weakening of central discipline, drifted to where they actually were, and that wasn’t particularly cohesive. There was a lot of politics to be done.

And we knew that, because of the sequencing, which the EU had said was a condition for negotiation. David Davis wanted to second-guess that. Our view was that would never work and would be a waste of time. And I think that was totally the right judgment.

UKICE: So was it Number 10 that prevented the ‘row of the summer’?

DD: Yes. And Olly Robbins, yes.

UKICE:  And was that actually a done deal, by the time you came back from the election? Had the sequencing actually been tied up by the officials during the interregnum?

DD: I think so. Because of the sequencing, the EU wanted us to deal with some extremely politically difficult and unpleasant things first, before we got to move onto the future relationship. So, there was a lot of politics to be done, to get people to accept that this wasn’t going to be a joyous process throughout, and we had to swallow some medicine first.

And then the Prime Minister had to be convinced of the necessity for a transitional implementation period. Some of what led to the Florence speech, of which I wrote a great deal, was about how we moved the argument to a place where we could negotiate properly on citizen’s rights, on our financial obligations and on the fact of a transitional implementation period, which was clearly, democratically speaking, going to be difficult.

UKICE: In terms of the Florence speech, what sort of final future relationship was that pointing towards? What might it have looked like?

DD: It was making the argument for a bespoke relationship that was more distant than the EEA and allowed the UK more legislative and regulatory autonomy than that, but was closer than a standard third country free trade agreement.

UKICE: What difference did the formalisation of Olly Robbins’ relationship with the Prime Minister and the creation of the Europe Unit in the Cabinet Office make to you?

DD: Not that much because I went to all the Cabinet’s meetings on Brexit. There was a new unit to get to know, and relationships had to be established there. And, from the start, there was a tension between the Sherpa and his team, and the Secretary of State for DExEU and his team. And obviously part of Number 10’s job is to try to manage that tension. But that made life more complicated, that there was that tension there.

UKICE: As you’re going through the autumn, trying to get the verdict of sufficient progress, you suddenly have Northern Ireland appearing as the big stumbling block, bigger even than the money. When did you wake up to the fact that Northern Ireland was going to be really, really difficult?

DD: March of 2017. In the summer, at the political level, I think officials were cracking on with it. We both knew that this was a huge problem. But also, as I said, our attention was fixed on trying to stabilise the politics after the election, which was sub-optimal. You’ve got that much political stabilisation work to do and, at the same time, you’ve got a massive policy problem. So, you slightly mentally park stuff when you’re just trying to make sure the Government is actually just working.

And then it became very hard in the autumn and the Irish took a hard line and I think we were far too often far too optimistic about what was required. The desire to give some future certainty to the economy was very high in our minds, so we were very keen to have an agreement that there should be a transition/implementation period. The EU knew that, and they exploited that hard.

Personally, I felt quite a lot of responsibility that people’s livelihoods depended on our getting some future certainty. And Michel Barnier tried to move things forward in October, I think it was too far ahead of Berlin, and particularly Paris, so he was forced back. And then it was very much a kind of ‘sign here’ process at the end, on the first draft of the joint report.

On the Northern Irish question, with hindsight, we spent far too little time on the text. And, obviously famously, things didn’t work for the DUP. And then we had long conversations with the DUP and came back with something which I think was materially better. But I think we made mistakes in the whole way that was handled.

Obviously, one of the difficulties, and a profound difficulty was that there was no devolved government in Northern Ireland, so there was no formal channel to have a conversation with Northern Irish politicians. And I’m not an expert on the devolution settlement or the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, but it’s quite difficult to talk to any of the Northern Irish parties without talking to all of them. So, the ironic result is that there had been too few conversations.

And the process with the DUP was obviously corrosive of trust between us and them, which is not entirely perhaps surprising. And certainly the EU made very little effort at that stage, and I don’t think have made much effort since, to earn the Unionist community’s confidence.

UKICE: And what about the Nationalist community? If you’d had the Northern Ireland Executive there, you’d have had to have been talking to Sinn Féin, and to the SDLP as well, who were no longer present in the UK Parliament after the 2017 election.

DD: Yes. That could have also helped because they would have had a proper vehicle to express their interests, to serve their interests. And they were more worried about that. And then the Irish Government felt a duty to be the surrogate representatives of the Nationalist community’s interests because the devolved institutions weren’t up and running.

UKICE: What about the language in the joint report and how the Irish protocol was handled through the early part of the next year, with suddenly the Prime Minister having to denounce the EU text?

DD: The EU Commission side, and I think Martin Selmayr was central to this, thought we had to be hauled to reality because we were dragging our feet. So, they very unilaterally came up with text and then published it, which was obviously framed pretty offensively. As a result, the report got the response they should have expected.

UKICE: Was there an alternative UK text being developed?

DD: No, there wasn’t, and I suggested at the time that we should work on one. But I think a number of officials felt that our politics would not have allowed us to put forward one that was even remotely realistic, and so it was better for the EU to lead the process, even if that was a bit embarrassing, because our politics was as it was at that stage and precluded us doing something more constructive. Which is an understandable argument, but I’m still not sure I agree with it.

UKICE: If we can skip onto Chequers. Did you expect David Davis to resign?

DD: We thought that there was a very good chance. Hoped he wouldn’t, thought there was a very good chance.

UKICE: And you thought you could manage, even if he did?

DD: Yes.

UKICE: So it was a risk worth taking?

DD: What we were trying to be able to do was advance a policy and a future relationship that would show that the Northern Ireland protocol would be temporary. And the Prime Minister, overall, was trying to deliver a Brexit that felt like Brexit to the voters who had voted to leave the EU, not a pseudo-Brexit, where the UK ends up a rule taker on everything, like EEA membership, which, by the way, would have continued free movement of workers, which people had certainly voted against, whatever our own personal views are on movement of workers.

And, at the same time, keep the United Kingdom together. At the same time, minimise unnecessary disruption, while recognising that market access after Brexit was not going to be the same as market access before Brexit. So, that was the policy triangle which we were trying to manage, and you couldn’t do it all perfectly.

I think the feeling was that David Davis’s preferences for the approach was not going to lead to a negotiable outcome. And so, even though his resignation was clearly politically going to be really bad, if we didn’t bring forward a policy we were going to be stuck anyway.

UKICE: Were you confident at any stage that this was something that could be sold to the parliamentary party? Or did you just think, ‘We’ve got to do this,’ and then just try and make it work?

DD: I thought that if we could offer up a future relationship that would satisfy the DUP on the protocol, then it was doable. But Salzburg thoroughly holed us below the water line on that. So, from then on, I always thought it to be very difficult. I think there was still hope. We came pretty close in the last vote. So it wasn’t an undoable thing. But after Salzburg it was really going to be very, very challenging. As it turned out, overwhelmingly challenging.

UKICE: How surprising was Salzburg? Did you have any reason to believe that the EU would go for the common rulebook and things like that?

DD: We knew that, although the Commission had been persuaded not to knife Chequers at the start, the Commission was very hostile. It didn’t fit nicely into their staircase. So a lot of them were very down on it. Certainly, we knew that the Dutch and German Governments had given it a cautious welcome, a little bit more than cautious. But the Commission was winning the debate over the summer, and then I think they kind of wound themselves up in the course of that Council and they went further than they meant to, but nonetheless, they did what they did.

UKICE: And was Northern Ireland the only driver of Chequers, or was the increasing concern about the impact on UK manufacturing another driver?

DD: That was another driver. The Prime Minister had been thoroughly persuaded that a continued close relationship with the Single Market in goods was very important to British manufacturing. I think she felt that the people who relied on those jobs came in some places from less prosperous and less economically-adaptable parts of the country.

On the other hand, she was willing to accept the consequences of not being in the Single Market for the financial services industry – I think she thought that was just a natural element of Brexit and, given the choice between rule-taking and market access or not rule-taking and reducing access for the financial services industry, that rule-taking was not sustainable

That was certainly the advice she received I think from the Bank of England, and the Treasury as well had persuaded her of that. But, in her view, for manufacturing, it was the economically sensible thing to do, to keep a close relationship with the EU. And the right thing to do as well.

UKICE: In retrospect, is there anything that the Prime Minister could have done to get that deal through that she didn’t do? One of the things that people talk about quite often is approaching Labour far earlier than she did.

DD: Yes, I’m sure there are a whole load of things, with hindsight. There are always a whole load of things with hindsight, that you should have done, which you didn’t do. Could overtures have been made to the Labour benches earlier? Yes, I think so. But bear in mind, you’re trying to stop the Conservative Party from exploding underneath you. And the idea that you’re flirting with the opposite benches was likely to provoke a reaction on your own side.

So there are good reasons why you don’t do things, even though, with hindsight, you think the reasons for doing them would have been stronger than the reasons for not doing them. And that’s generally my experience in nine years in government and with the Commission is that when you make mistakes you often see what the factors are at the time, but you give the wrong weighting to the factors.

UKICE: Do you think the Prime Minister was ever serious about no deal?

DD: I think there might have been flashes when she was, but I would say they were flashes. But the reality was that the numbers in the Commons after the 2017 election would not have permitted no deal and the Commons would have acted had a majority thought she was really going for no deal, as it did with Boris Johnson. And she was aware of that.

UKICE: And what about going off to Brussels, post-Brady amendment, to try and get new language, alternative arrangements, and things like that? Did you ever in Number 10, think that was going to deliver enough to get your backbenchers back on board?

DD: I personally always thought that that was pretty unlikely. The Venn diagram of that project circle and the circle of what was negotiable with the EU seemed unlikely to touch, let alone overlap.

UKICE: In retrospect, one thing compared to the original EU draft that the Johnson administration got was the Stormont consent mechanism. Could you have negotiated that with an all-UK backstop?

DD: I think we wrongly thought that that was not negotiable. We could have been wrong about that. But you’re right, too, that it’s a more natural fit with a Northern Ireland-only construction of the protocol.

UKICE: Did you think Boris Johnson was more serious about no deal than Theresa May was?

DD: Yes, totally.

UKICE: Despite all of the stories you heard about him being concerned about the security implications for Northern Ireland?

DD: I think he has a certain bias towards thinking it will all be fine, which is not Theresa May’s bias. Obviously, Theresa May’s views evolved, and the flashes of no deal were not unconnected with moments of enormous frustration with the EU.

But generally she had thoroughly absorbed herself with the Northern Ireland brief, and spoke to a lot of people. And she was persuaded that no deal would be deeply damaging to people and society in Northern Ireland. Under any terms, no deal was not in Northern Ireland’s interest.

UKICE: Were you surprised by what Boris Johnson eventually agreed to over Northern Ireland?

DD: Kind of yes and no. Because I personally am a patriotic unionist, I had wrongly hoped that genuine unionist commitments were held more widely in the Conservative Party than they now are. But no, because I knew that Northern Ireland was not a priority for him, and that he was willing to cut them loose. I was surprised that the Conservative Party accepted what he agreed to so readily.

UKICE: Throughout all of this you had quite a lot of arguments with the devolved administrations. Was that a very big issue for Theresa May, the fallout potentially for the wider union, Scotland, to a lesser extent Wales?

DD: Yes. Generally, preserving the union was very, very close to her heart, which is one of the reasons I was proud to work for her. And so it was very much in our minds. The issues about decision-making and trade barriers within the United Kingdom were difficult and weren’t much to do with me. David Lidington led very ably on that, ‘ably’ being an understatement really, given the circumstances. But it was difficult, and difficult to do without a proper majority.

But concern about the border consequences of Brexit for Northern Ireland and views in Scotland were ever-present. And it was clear that no deal was 98% downside for the future of the Union of the United Kingdom.

UKICE: And the deal that Theresa May envisaged, the Chequers sort of deal, did you think that was good enough for the future of the Union and would have worked for the UK as a whole?

DD: Yes. If you’re interested in any kind of Brexit at all, then that was the most workable part in Brexit, because we thought it would probably be democratically sustainable. You’d accept taking rules on widgets but most people don’t really care about widgets. Even if you’re not a formal rule-taker, the EU is one of the great gravitational powers of regulations of widgets in the world anyway, so that wouldn’t make that much practical difference.

So, we thought it would be democratically-sustainable, it would be no borders – north, south, east, west – drawn around it, and really the only thing that matters in Northern Ireland is no borders north/south and no borders east/west. And putting in an east/west border, well that doesn’t really work for Northern Ireland any more than a north/south would.

Actually, in substance, it was potentially a position that could have commanded a consensus. We were, because of our political fragility, not able to voice forcefully the arguments for compromise or what were the actual compromises we had made, which I think damaged our persuasive efforts, both domestically and with the EU.

But, in practical terms, something in that landing zone would have, I think have allowed us to say to the Scottish Government, ‘Look, this deal ticks some of your boxes.’

UKICE: Do you think Chequers would have been negotiable in the future relationship?

DD: I don’t know. Although, as it turns out, we have a Chequers-like arrangement on customs for Northern Ireland only, it was clear that they were extremely reluctant to repeat that for the whole UK.

UKICE: And do you think the EU would have agreed the common rulebook?

DD: I don’t know. Certainly one or two friendly ambassadors said to me, ‘If you could say ‘Okay, we’ll be in a customs union’, then you will put us on the back foot on the common rulebook.’ But we weren’t able to do that politically, even if the Prime Minister had definitively wanted to, and she didn’t definitely want to. So, the pressure on the EU eased off.

The common rulebook was a potential outcome of the political declaration that we negotiated, but it wasn’t guaranteed. I think people in the EU say we spend too much time trying to persuade the EU that we knew their best interests better than they did. And the common rulebook, they would probably say, would be an example of that. But given where we are, they missed a trick on Chequers.

UKICE: Do you think this was a big failure of British diplomacy?

DD: The fundamental problem was that we were deeply internally divided. It is very hard to advance your country’s interests successfully when you have a fragile Government that is internally divided on the question – deeply and patently obviously internally divided on the question of what you are trying to negotiate. When that question divides your whole country, not only your Government, your Parliament, and you have no majority…

So, those are really very bad circumstances in which to try to negotiate something. Really, really hard. And I am just surprised that we got as far as we did. And I’m still surprised that the Government lasted as long as it did. I was actually amazed.

UKICE: Would it all have been very different if a Leaver Prime Minister had come in, in 2016, rather than someone who voted Remain?

DD: That is a fascinating question. It might have blown up on Northern Ireland, but you can never know. Because if someone has come in the contradictions of some of the claims made for Brexit with reality would have been made apparent. And those contradictions might have been revealed before opinion on the two sides became so radicalised.

On the other hand, I think Theresa May’s greatest achievement was to handle the SNP very well, in 2016 and 2017, and to give the SNP a bloody nose. A Prime Minister who struck the wrong notes there might have given the SNP a boost at a very damaging time. So, who knows?

My overall reflection is that this has been a very, very divisive issue. I think tonal mistakes were made early on. And there are some strengths in the binary way our system works, but it is set up to foster division. That is the problem. That is part of the process of oppositional politics – to make quick, clear decisions and demonstrable accountability when a Government that seems to be failing by the electorate are slung out. But the problems of a failure to look for consensus have been demonstrated over the past few years.

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