MPs like David Davis have no idea what fresh hell Brexit will land us in – the posturing needs to stop

The former Brexit secretary doesn’t know the difference between negotiating on behalf of the government, and being a fantasist. What offers him hope is that so many fellow Tory MPs are equally delusional

Matthew Norman
Sunday 18 November 2018 19:08
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David Davis tells Radio 4 he 'won't criticise Prime Minister while out of the country'

Relax, everybody, it’s going to be fine. For a moment there I thought we were in trouble, as Butch Cassidy tells Sundance in the last line of the late William Goldman’s magnificent screenplay. But phew, phew and thrice phew, the no-deal Brexit panic is over, because David Davis went to Washington.

If in all the revolving door cabinet high excitement you’ve forgotten who that is, Davis used to be DExEU SOS. That isn’t the chorus of the PM’s favourite ABBA songs. It’s the catchy acronym for post of Brexit secretary.

The last holder of the post was Dominic Raab, who left it on Friday to spend more time as co-favourite of four (with the wholly hideous trinity of Sajid Javid, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson) to succeed Theresa May.

David Davis tells Radio 4 'negotiations are all but over'

The incumbent may also have a name. But since he officially has as much influence on the process as the Downing Street cat, it can’t be worth the effort of learning.

Anyway, back to Davis’ triumph. “I have spent the last few days in Washington talking to US Government Trade and Treasury officials encouraging a free trade deal with the UK,” he tweeted on Friday. “Excellent response. They have already started on the procedures to allow negotiations to start immediately once we leave the EU in March.”

At first glance, this is tremendous news. But the burst of relief lasts as long as Butch and Sundance’s (three seconds until they leave the fort to be gunned down by the entire Bolivian army). Then it fades into concern about his mental state.

Davis’ problem isn’t that he has forgotten once being DExEU SOS (though given his work rate, he might as well). It’s that he appears to think he still is, and that Liam Fox’s job – making the easiest trade deals in history – has been added to his portfolio.

If you were the grandchild who heard him talking like this, you’d have to alert his physician. “Sorry to bother you doctor,” you’d begin, “but your patient David Davis is my grandfather, and I’m worried about him. He reckons he’s in charge of negotiating a free trade deal with Donald Trump”.

“Mm, that does sound disturbing,” every qualified GP other than Dr Liam Fox would reply. “I’ll need to see him myself, but there are some initial questions we ask in situations like this, just to get the broader picture, and you might try one of those.”

“I already have. I asked him who the prime minister is.” “And what did he say?” “He said, ‘Earl Grey, isn’t it? Or Sir PG Tips. One of the two. But it doesn’t matter, because in a few weeks it’s going to be me’.”

Perhaps it will. Goldman’s famous observation about the movie industry is the cliché du jour in British politics. Nobody knows anything. And nobody, for once, pretends otherwise.

No one knows if May will survive the week, month, another year, or forever. Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t know how he’d vote in a second referendum. Why should he? He’s a very busy man. No one knows what he’s busy with. But whatever it is, he doesn’t have time for the trivia.

And David Davis doesn’t know the difference between negotiating on behalf of the government, and being a potty fantasist who might as relevantly be reenacting the Battle of Naseby with Smarties and peanut M&Ms in the expectation of reversing the outcome of the English Civil War.

What offers him hope, is that so many fellow Tory MPs are equally delusional. So if May falls, and the Tory MPs can’t face a leadership election, and enough of them see a befuddled old man in a hurry as their saviour, there is a chance that Davis will win the caretaker’s mop by coronation.

Anyone who regards that as inconceivable is, like Wallace Shawn in Goldman’s The Princess Bride, misunderstanding the meaning of the word. Nothing is beyond conception in this version of The Twilight Zone.

An episode of the original alternate reality series was titled Five Characters In Search Of An Exit, which seamlessly brings us to five characters in search of a Brexit.

Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt, Fox, Chris Grayling and Michael Gove have founded the Breakfast Club, apparently, to plot how to force May to renegotiate her deal on more favourable terms.

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That would be with an EU which will reportedly demand another £10bn, on top of the £39bn, to extend the transition period by 12 short months. So yes, it does seem ready to cave.

And that would be the May who has gone all-in with her terrible hand in the hope of bluffing both sides – no dealers and “re-referendumers” – that hers is the only way of avoiding what each fears most. So yep, she too sounds ready to yield to blackmail.

While Corbyn doesn’t know if it’s Brussels or the Grinch’s dream Christmas, no one knows if John McDonnell means to firm up his delicate hints that the second referendum he correctly analyses as far likelier than a general election, is the answer.

Assuming the life support plug is pulled on May’s deal by a Commons’ vote (if it gets that far), it will be one of two answers. There will be a binary choice between no deal and the People’s Vote for which The Independent and its readers have led the fight. A straight choice between a cataclysm and a disaster.

No one knows how that would be decided, or if a second referendum would go the other way, or anything at all, beyond the fact that Grandpa Davis went to Washington, where one assumes, without knowing, that his highest level of contact was one of those grizzled bartenders who nod sympathetically at the ravings of deluded nebbishes on behalf of his tip jar.

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