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David Davis MP interviewed by The Telegraph on Brexit and his time in Government

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As published in The Telegraph:

When David Davis resigned from the Government in July, he was careful not to attack Theresa May personally over her handling of the EU negotiations.

While furious with the way her Chequers plan was foisted on him as Brexit secretary, his quarrel, he has repeatedly said, is with the policy itself rather than the Prime Minister.

Now he has unleashed a previously pent-up stream of criticism of Mrs May’s advisers, describing a failure to adequately grasp the “practicalities” of the negotiations, and tendencies to believe EU claims “that are simply exaggerations” and “quail” in front of arguments from Brussels.

Downing Street’s response to the alternative Brexit plan backed by Mr Davis and Boris Johnson last week was to insist that the proposals, a free-trade agreement modelled on the EU arrangement with Canada, would break up the UK. May loyalists in government have taken to the airwaves to voice the same claim since the Prime Minister’s own plan was knocked back by EU leaders in Salzburg earlier this month.

But the claim, Mr Davis points out, is based on the EU’s insistence that a border in the Irish Sea is the only way of avoiding a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This acceptance is symptomatic of a style of negotiation that has seen No 10 “fretting” about resolving EU concerns as they arise, rather than leaving the necessary “tension” to extract the best outcome for the country, he says.

“The tendency on the part of the Whitehall advice, and the No 10 advice in particular, is to say, what’s negotiable, what’s achievable,” Mr Davis tells The Telegraph at his home near Howden, in the East Riding of Yorkshire.
By contrast, he always advocated a more “robust approach”, including focusing on honouring the result of the 2016 referendum.

Last summer, he tried on three occasions to “strike out” the “new customs partnership” plan that he feared would prevent the UK from striking free trade deals with non-EU countries after Brexit.

“I thought at first it was the Treasury being difficult,” he says. “It turned out it was No 10. They said we’ve got to keep it in for ‘negotiability’ reasons.”

He adds: “That’s not the way you design your policies. You design your policies, then sell them, then amend them if you do have to do that but not the other way around.”

A similar approach, he believes, has been taken in presenting the Chequers plan to Brussels. Drawing an analogy with buying a new car, Mr Davis adds: “’What would you like me to pay you?’ is not the right approach to a negotiation. I massively simplify, but that’s the equivalent.”

Before his election to the Commons in 1987, Mr Davis ran a business operating across the Canadian border. Many of the officials advising the Prime Minister on the negotiations demonstrate a failure to fully grasp the “practicalities” involved in the movement of goods, he says.

He is known to have clashed repeatedly with Olly Robbins, the Prime Minister’s Europe adviser. “We’ve got civil servants who are patriotic, well-intentioned, very intelligent people, but they’ve never run a business like that, and so they tend to accept without enough challenge some of the comments that come back [from Brussels]. Quite a lot of the time there is not as strong a grip on the practicalities as I would like, and that means that when you face an argument like Northern Ireland, they believe things that are simply exaggerations. Northern Ireland is an issue … but it’s utterly manageable.”

Mr Davis predicts that the EU will present a “very vague future promise” of a trade agreement, in order to secure the £39 billion divorce bill on offer. He warns Mrs May not to accept it. “The temptation of the Government will be to take it with two hands because it gets them a resolution … The Government is always fretting about resolving this issue, not keeping the tension running. It’s understandable … but it’s the tension that will deliver the outcome.”

Mr Davis separately takes aim at the Treasury for delaying the public announcements on preparations for a no-deal outcome, which were finally rolled out in recent weeks. He wanted the papers issued in March. “Quite a lot of the delay in no-deal [preparation] arose because both the Treasury and No 10 were nervous about making public announcements back in March,” he says.

“The Treasury in particular were … terrified of announcing an implementation deal then the next day saying, ‘oh by the way, on no-deal we’re going to do this’.”

Mr Davis insists the Conservatives “don’t need all the turmoil of a leadership contest” at this point. “We need to focus on the one issue, otherwise we’ll make a mess of both of them,” he says. He flatly says “no” when asked if he retains any interest in the top job.

But turning to the future after Brexit next March, he suggests more energy is needed on the domestic front. Among other areas, the Government should include looking at lowering taxes such as National Insurance, and funding infrastructure such as fibre optics, as opposed to “big prestige projects” including HS2, and considering a “completely new housing strategy”.

Mr Davis separately takes aim at the Treasury for delaying the public announcements on preparations for a no-deal outcome, which were finally rolled out in recent weeks. He wanted the papers issued in March. “Quite a lot of the delay in no-deal [preparation] arose because both the Treasury and No 10 were nervous about making public announcements back in March,” he says.