As published in the Hull Daily Mail:
David Davis opens up on Brexit resignation, Chequers deal and why EU made him out to be lazy
David Davis is feeling hot and Nick Clegg is texting him.
Not even the stone walls of Parliament have been able to keep the Haltemprice and Howden MP cool amid the searing heatwave.
He removes his tie and jacket, having just come from the House of Commons, and plonks himself down in a soft green armchair in the corner of his impressive office.
Despite having resigned as Brexit secretary more than two weeks ago, Mr Davis remains in his old ministerial digs, a grand rectangular room found at the top of a tall spiral staircase just off the exclusive members lobby – the hall in front of the Commons entrance where only MPs and permitted journalists are allowed to roam when Parliament is in session.
“They tried to move me and I said, ‘So what am I going to get instead?’,” he explains.
“There was a kind of long-pause and so I said, ‘I’m staying’. If they find me something nice then fine.”
Before he starts talking about the events that led to him stepping down as secretary of state, he puts his glasses on to consult his mobile and checks what Mr Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, has texted.
It is an invite to be a guest on the podcast, Anger Management, Mr Clegg’s media venture since losing his Sheffield seat at last year’s election.
“Things have changed in two years – now some of my old colleagues are doing things like this,” says Mr Davis, pointing to his phone. “I think I’ll do it. I like Nick.”
He settles back and, with one leg strewn over the arm of the chair, the veteran Tory opens up about why he felt he could no longer serve as one of Theresa May’s ministers.
In his interview with Hull Live, he revealed how he:
– consulted Tory party chiefs in East Yorkshire before resigning;
– knew the Chequers Brexit deal would not satisfy the leave-backing Humber region;
– is still advising his Brexit Secretary successor, Dominic Raab;
– believes the EU briefed against him to make out he was lazy during the negotiations.
Mr Davis says he knew the future of his tenure as Brexit secretary was in doubt seven days before he took the decision to resign.
The 69-year-old met the PM on Monday, July 2 – five days before the Cabinet was due to assemble at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence outside London, to thrash out an agreed plan for negotiating a future relationship with the EU.
He says he knew then that her plan would be a near-impossible pill to swallow.
Mrs May was proposing signing-up to a common rulebook with the EU after Brexit for the trade of goods, keeping the UK economy closely linked with Europe.
“I said, ‘I don’t think this will work, I don’t think it will do’,” he recalls.
“The Prime Minister took the view that this got us over the line and I took the view it didn’t and, even if it did, it was too far.”
He stalled on doing anything drastic – he asked to see the proposals in writing to see whether a compromise could be struck, just as they had done before during policy disputes on the withdrawal terms.
But there was no middle ground to be found. Mr Davis wrote to Mrs May on Wednesday evening to confirm the Chequers plan was “still a problem”.
The letter he wrote that night would form the basis of his contribution when Cabinet met at Chequers, the 16 century Buckinghamshire mansion, on Friday, July 6.
“After the PM and the Chancellor of the Duchy, David Lidington, had spoken [at Chequers], I started with the words: ‘Well Prime Minister, as you know, I am going to be the odd one out on this’.
“And I went through my analysis of why it didn’t really meet our promise of control of laws and control of borders and so on.”
As the talks wrapped up that evening, the press waited excitedly with rumours circulating that a high profile Brexit-backing member of the Cabinet could walk.
Yet Mr Davis says, as with any decision which has “very high consequences”, he gave himself two days to mull over resigning.
He travelled back to his East Yorkshire home in Spaldington and on Saturday met with the chiefs of his local Tory Party association to brief them on what he was considering.
“I went back to the constituency, I spoke to my association chairman Angus West and my association president David Jackson and said, ‘I’m thinking of resigning for the following reasons’ and explained to them,” he says. “Both of them accepted my reasons, which was important to me.”
A day of drafting his resignation letter followed before heading back south on Sunday to honour a family commitment at the British Grand Prix.
He stood happily in the sunshine watching German driver Sebastian Vettel snatch victory at Silverstone only hours before he was set to tell the PM he was going to resign.
For Mr Davis, there was historical precedence for such a period of calm. “There was an element of me that says, well, if when the Armada was coming Francis Drake can play bowls, I can go and watch some car racing,” he says, with a mischievous smile.
What happened later on Sunday has been well-documented – he met with the chief whip, Julian Smith, and No 10 communications chief, Robbie Gibb.
An hour-long meeting with the pair did not convince him to change his mind – at about 10pm, he rang the PM, who was in her Maidenhead constituency at the time, and let her know he was departing.
He says he knew the deal agreed at Chequers was not something he could have, in good faith, sold to his constituents as a good Brexit outcome.
“Most people in Haltemprice and Howden – most people in East Yorkshire full-stop, whether in Tory or Labour seats – voted to leave,” says the MP of 31 years.
“And they would expect me to deliver a real Brexit and not something that sounded like Brexit or looked like Brexit.
“I’ve always taken a very strong line on being straight forward with people – it is pretty easy in Yorkshire because everyone is straight forward.
“What are the big things that people care about? It was control of our own laws, our own destiny, our taxes and borders.
“What this [the Chequers deal] will do is, it will not give control of our laws in particular. [That was] my biggest objection, if you like.”
While the Chequers proposals would technically grant the UK independence, any divergence from EU rules – including those made after Britain has left the bloc – and the country could pay a high economic price, with fines or even loss of access to the European market a likely result.
What Mr Davis is worried about is the technocrats in the EU using fresh regulations – especially in sectors where the UK is a world leader, in fields such as artificial intelligence and life sciences – to hamper the UK’s post-Brexit growth.
“You mustn’t just view this law-making process as somehow neutral. It is not,” he warns.
“Who influences it? The influencers are the big manufacturing companies in Europe. And once we’re gone, we won’t have a say at all, so it is entirely possible for them to disadvantage us.”
Mr Davis says Chequers became a resigning issue because, after not personally agreeing with it, he could not sell its perceived merits to the British people or to Brussels.
Instead, Dominic Raab, a former chief of staff in Mr Davis’ office, has been chosen as his successor and has the task of finalising the negotiations.
Despite standing down, that has not stopped Mr Davis from keeping a hand in with what is happening in the Brexit arena.
“Dominic [Raab] is doing well. You’ll remember that I recruited him,” says the father of three.
“He is very smart, very tough. Needless to say we’ve had long conversations and we’ll have several more and I will support him. Even though I’m not entirely on board with his policy, I don’t want to lose any points, as it were.”
Mr Raab has already carried out plans first put into motion by his predecessor. The incoming announcements, 70 in total, explaining to businesses how they can prepare for a “no deal” outcome in the Brexit talks were Mr Davis’ idea.
It was also, he says, his suggestion to draw up a “reserve” trade deal, based on previous free trade deals the EU has struck with countries such as Canada, South Africa and South Africa, in the event that the first UK pitch is not accepted by the European Commission.
Since his departure, No 10 has commissioned lawyers to compile a draft treaty based on what the EU has previously agreed in free trade deals.
The ex-SAS reservist says: “If something goes wrong for whatever reason, this is ready off the shelf and we can say: ‘If you don’t want that, what about this one?’. It makes fewer demands of them but offers less, in terms of quid pro quo.
“I used to call it the reserve parachute. My line was that, if you have to open a reserve parachute at 300ft [from the ground], it has to open pretty quickly.”
Some in the Conservative Party, including Goole MP Andrew Percy, another ex “DD” staffer, have bandied together to form the Brexit Delivery Group.
They are backing the Chequers deal as the only workable compromise and are calling on disgruntled “hardcore Brexiteers” to give Mrs May the space she needs to thrash it out.
But Mr Davis says he is not convinced that Chequers can bring unity to the party, or that it will even be accepted by Europe.
“To be honest, do you really think the Chequers deal has kept the party together? Use your eyes and ears,” says the former businessman.
“Do you really think the Chequers deal is getting a wonderful reception in Europe? Again, use your eyes and ears.
“What is apparent in each case is it’s not delivering for the compliance of the Europeans and to do so would probably require another big offer.
“And it is becoming very apparent in the House of Commons that nobody wants to give any more, whether that is the Labour Party or the Tory Party. So there is your problem, straight off.”
Mr Davis, who was at the centre of the negotiations with the EU for two years, says he does not believe there will be a “no deal” outcome – and certainly not as envisaged.
Agreements will be put in place to allow planes to fly and any border delays, he believes, would be quickly ironed out as the traffic and haulage queues would have a negative impact for trade and movement on both sides of the Channel.
And he predicts it will not be EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier who ends up agreeing the final Brexit deal – it will be the likes of German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron who take over to put a deal to bed.
It was his visits to meet the European leaders in their respective capital cities that caused, he thinks, the EU to brief against him. A rumour circulated in the media that this year, Mr Davis had spent only four hours with his opposite number, Mr Barnier.
“It is not true, it was a lot more than four hours,” says the former Tory leadership contender. “They knew I was making my way round all the other capitals. It is the capitals that will eventually make the decision – not Barnier and not [Jean Claude] Junker.
“They were really, really twitchy about that. Keeping all 27 in the same place is very important to them. And that’s alright. You’ve got to realise, when you go into something like this, you are going to get shot at. But so what? I’ve got broad shoulders.
“And if they are shooting at you, you are probably doing the right thing. When they stop shooting at you, you think, ‘Why aren’t I upsetting them?’.”
One positive aspect of no longer having the responsibility of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU – the biggest political and economic upheaval for the country in a generation – is that Mr Davis, an MP for East Yorkshire since 1987, will at least get a holiday this summer.
But he does not plan on getting the sun lounger out and sitting by a pool. He has “blocked out” a week in August when he plans to attempt to climb at least 40 peaks in the Lake District, a hike of 74 miles on foot and a climb of 29,000ft.
“It is entirely restful – it will be absolutely restful,” he assures. “When you do that, you are not thinking about things.
“People often make something of my sports – climbing, flying, parachuting (although I don’t parachute these days).
“One thing about those sports is that you can’t think about anything else because, if you are halfway up a rock face, it is not wise to be thinking about next week’s work.
“The things I do tend to be about switching off for a couple of hours and then going back to work. And now I can [do that] – well, at least I think I can. We are going to have a busy year.”
Busy is the operative word. MPs are getting their rest in now over the six-week summer break because Brexit will be sure to dominate politics on Parliament’s return in September.
But Mr Davis will have a completely different set of negotiations on his hands then, however – a bid to hold onto his plush office in the Palace of Westminster.