9 Jul 2018

No 10 to brief opposition parties on Brexit

Some of those close to David Davis who were urging him to resign over the new direction of Brexit policy were in no doubt what they thought the point of such a resignation would be. “She’s got to go,” one of them told me last week. The same Davis ally thought the hard line Brexiteers had the numbers to topple Mrs May. That is a widely disputed assertion. More often you hear ministers say that the Brexiteers who don’t like the direction of policy have the numbers to trigger a vote of no confidence, no reliable means of winning it and no clue what two names would go to the party for approval as replacement leader if they went down that route.

Listening to David Davis on Radio 4 this morning he insists that he is not party to such dark plotting. His words urge backbenchers not to go for Theresa May, his actions seem to do something different. The lack of walk-outs at Chequers deprived Brexiteers of the rallying point for a push. Now they have one.

As David Davis said in his interview, he was close to Theresa May. Aides say he was one of the critical voices consulted in the aftermath of the botched 2017 General Election urging her to carry on when she wobbled. There’s been a strange rapport that starts with his visits to her protesting the case for civil liberties when she was Home Secretary. Mr Davis thought he had extracted a promise after his last resignation threat that there would be “two hands on the pen” writing the White Paper.

He quickly discovered that the authorship had been wrestled from him, the timing and the choreography too. As he spells out in his very direct resignation letter, he felt the Prime Minister over-ruled his much better advice at every turn of the process, starting with the decision not to go to Parliament straight away and instead be dragged there by the Supreme Court. He told friends that the worst mistake in what he considered a crowded field might well be accepting the EU’s timetable structure for talks, something he felt was put under the PM’s nose for sign off by Olly Robbins and Jeremy Heywood when David Davis and others were busy fighting the general election. He felt that again and again he helped to get buy-in from fellow Brexiteers for the latest uncomfortable policy stretch.

Some Brexiteers agree with the analysis that the numbers aren’t there and the strategy should be to disrupt the government with guerilla warfare before rallying troops to vote against the Soft Brexit deal when it is brought to Parliament. Which brings you to the question of “what will Labour do?”

One former Cabinet minister told me the talk about some sort of coalition of the willing, cross-party coordination to get Mrs May’s plan through Parliament, was happening behind the scenes at a high level. “People are gaming a national government,” the former Cabinet minister said, adding: “How else do you get anywhere by the end of the year?”

And with that thought, it’s intriguing that Gavin Barwell, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, has convened an extraordinary meeting with Labour and other opposition MPs to talk through the Chequers proposals early this afternoon. No. 10 has been watching the numbers of pro-Remain Labour MPs ready to rebel against their own leadership line and wondering when they might need to call on that body of MPs. The very notion of publicly flirting with that will be explosive in some Tory circles where all the talk is of “collaboration” and “appeasement” and other war-time language.

One of the many barbs in David Davis’ resignation letter is the accusation that the Prime Minister is on a slippery slope of more concessions that will end in something very like the EU’s off the shelf EEA + Customs Union model. Is there a majority in the Commons for something like that? Is the PM signalling she’s ready to blow apart party structures to get the deal she wants?

Look at the choice of new Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, longstanding ally of David Davis, and Mrs May appears to have sent out a counter signal. She is still in the business of keeping the party together, no matter how difficult it is to map the journey.

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