So the Brexit secretary has gone, and been replaced by current housing minister, Dominic Raab. And, in perhaps the most curious part of the story to date, Davis told the Today programme that he did not want his departure to weaken the Prime Minister.
Yet, in the short-term at least, that is precisely what he has done. Not because his absence will fundamentally impact on the Brexit negotiations themselves. After all, David Davis has only met Michel Barnier for formal talks on four occasions. And all the indications are that it was really the Prime Minister’s adviser, Olly Robbins, who was driving the negotiation process. The real issue created by the resignation is party political.
David Davis played a crucial role in the management of a profoundly divided Conservative Party. As the long-term and principled eurosceptic he was known to be, his presence in the Cabinet Office served to reassure pro-Brexit Conservatives that the process was broadly on track.
Davis, in other words, was one of the few who could keep the European Research Group onside. Now that has all changed. Within hours of his departure, Brexiteers were queuing up to question how Brexit is being handled and even the position of the prime minister.
Theresa May’s party management problems have become far more pressing.
And this also applies to the other wing of her parliamentary party. Much was made of the fact the prime minister managed, at Chequers on Friday, to gain the support of Cabinet Brexiteers for her new Brexit plan – albeit fleetingly.
Equally importantly, her new plan seemed to have drawn the sting from potential rebels on the ‘soft’ Brexit side of the party. With votes on the Trade Bill due next week, including on an amendment instructing the government to agree some kind of customs union with the EU, this was every bit as important as keeping the Brexiteers onside. Now, both sides scent the opportunity to push the government in their preferred direction.
Reconciling them both will be the devil’s own task. This matters enormously because the meeting at Chequers marked not the end, but the beginning of a lengthy process.
The plans outlined in the three-page document released on Friday evening might have gained Cabinet approval, but they are a long way from being acceptable to the EU, and for several reasons. Brussels has repeatedly stated that partial membership of the single market is not an option (the government was asking for membership for goods and not services).
It has equally made it clear that membership of that market would require acceptance of freedom of movement – the government has stated explicitly that this will end. And the EU has long insisted that the ultimate arbiter of regulatory alignment must be the EU’s own court, while Theresa May wants a joint UK-EU committee. So, this plan is not the finished article.
But it does indicate a direction of travel. Confronted with a choice between a relatively ‘clean’ Brexit, which would damage the economy, and a softer one, which might offend the principles of the Brexiters, Theresa May signaled her intention to lean towards the former.
arms And it is this to this that David Davis objected. In so doing, he implied that provoking a fight now was more likely to alter this direction than waiting until the autumn, when the government would need to respond to inevitable EU demands for more concessions. For those wonderful 48 hours between close of play on Friday and midnight on Sunday, Theresa May must have thought she’d accomplished the impossible.
But, she would have known that, at best, she’d merely won a points victory in round one of a long fight. David Davis has ensured round two will start much earlier than Downing Street would have anticipated or wanted. And the outcome is simply too close to call.
By Professor Anand Menon, Director of The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally feature din the Metro.