What a tragedy then, for David Davis, for Theresa May, for us, for Britain, for Europe and for the world that, so close to the finish line, the Brexit secretary has decided that the prime minister’s vision for Brexit being so different to his own, it cannot be he that delivers it.
And it is a tragedy, really it is. The government has lost not only one of its most dedicated and capable people, but certainly its most visionary.
Up until Friday at Chequers, all had been progressing so perfectly to the Davis plan.
It is not immediately straightforward for present day historians to comprehend the full scale of Davis’s vision for Brexit, as when he first began to set it out in a series of threads on Twitter in February 2016 he did not yet understand how Twitter threads worked so numbered his various tweets 1/1, 2/2, 3/3, 4/4 and so on, which if unhelpful does at least give some insight into the towering intellect of the man.
Then as now, he was absolutely right to claim that, “Within minutes of a vote for #Brexit CEOs would be knocking down Chancellor Merkel’s door. Demanding access to the British market. It’s not just German cars, the same would happen in industries across Europe, all demanding uninterrupted access to the UK market.”
That within minutes of a Brexit vote, what actually happened is German car manufacturers knocked down Chancellor Merkel’s door and instructed her not to compromise the integrity of the single market is, perhaps, unfortunate.
Then, in May 2016, the soon to be Brexit secretary explained how, “post-Brexit a UK-German deal would include free access for their cars and industrial goods, in exchange for a deal on everything else. Similar deals would be reached with other key EU nations. France would want to protect £3bn of food and wine exports. Italy, its £1bn fashion exports. Poland its £3bn manufacturing exports.”
Now, having been Europe Minister for three years between 1994 and 1997, you or I might imagine the now former Brexit secretary to have been aware that his proposal here, that “key EU nations” would strike deals with Britain independently of one another and independently of the EU, is entirely illegal under EU law, and so stood zero per cent chance of ever happening. But you or I simply lack the visionary powers of David Davis. That, again, none of this ever came to pass shall remain a mystery.
And then, on Monday 11 July 2016, just days before being appointed Brexit secretary, Davis again set out clear instructions to his future self, which I make no apology for quoting at length.
“Be under no doubt: we can do deals with our trading partners, and we can do them quickly,” he wrote on the Conservative Home website. “I would expect the new prime minister on 9 September to immediately trigger a large round of global trade deals with all our most favoured trade partners. I would expect that the negotiation phase of most of them to be concluded within between 12 and 24 months.”
“So within two years, before the negotiation with the EU is likely to be complete, and therefore before anything material has changed, we can negotiate a free trade area massively larger than the EU. Trade deals with the US and China alone will give us a trade area almost twice the size of the EU, and of course we will also be seeking deals with Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, India, Japan, the UAE, Indonesia – and many others.”
This, again, had the misfortune of being entirely illegal under EU law, which, then and now, the UK remains subject to. Fast forward two years and you’ll see that none of these trade deals have been brokered, signed or agreed to, not least as to enter into discussions with any of them while we are still a member of the EU is against the law. What has happened in the interim, however, is that the EU has signed a huge free trade deal with Japan, which we have been given permission to copy and paste once we leave, which was nothing if not generous of them.
Within days of being appointed Brexit secretary, by the way, Davis repeated this point on Sky News, describing the UK’s soon to be negotiated free trade area as being “10 times larger” than the EU. In monetary terms, which is the only relevant matrix on which to measure it, it was pointed out that there is no free trade area “10 times larger than the EU” in existence. Ten times the EU’s GDP is larger than the GDP of planet earth. That Davis was not pressed at the time on whether his post-Brexit vision for Britain involved trade deals with other planets is something that Sky News is yet to apologise for.
Whether Davis understands the full impact of his shock resignation on Theresa May and her government is another thing we cannot fully know. He is, after all, not one to spend too long assessing the impact of events. Earlier this year, having claimed at the despatch box that his department had undergone in “forensic detail” how Brexit would affect every sector of the economy, he was then challenged to produce these assessments. There followed a six-week carnival of obfuscation, before the “sectoral analyses” were placed under strict guard, accessible by MPs only if they handed in their phones and took no notes. Eventually they were published, and contained such lines as: “The fishing industry is mainly focused on coastal towns.” To say they had been frantically copy and pasted from Wikipedia would be unfair to Wikipedia.
And so we must wait and see whether his replacement, Dominic Raab, a man principally known in Westminster for eating the same Pret lunch every single day, can match his visionary powers. On that evidence, one imagines not, and who knows, maybe that could be a good thing.
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