David Davis is proof that there are second acts in political lives. Eleven years after he was defeated by David Cameron in the Conservative leadership contest, and 19 years after he last served in government, Davis has been tasked by Theresa May with negotiating Brexit.
It was a role that the Leave supporter had pitched for throughout the EU referendum campaign, though he was still surprised by his elevation. When the call from Downing Street came, Davis was drinking with a former researcher in a Commons bar and initially ignored his phone. As Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, he will now be one of the new administration’s defining figures.
The Haltemprice and Howden MP, 67, served as Europe minister from 1994-97, a role in which he acquired the sobriquet “Monsieur Non”. He has already displayed similar implacability in his new post. To the charge that opening trade talks with other countries would be illegal under EU law, Davis replied: “Well that’s what they say, they can’t tell us who to talk to . . . What are they are going to do?” He has also warned that European migrants who arrive before Brexit is complete could be denied the right to remain.
Davis expects Article 50, which sets a two-year limit for withdrawal, to be triggered “before or by the start” of 2017. Rater than retaining single market membership (as Norway does), he favours Canadian-style tariff-free access. This would grant the UK exemption from free movement and EU budget contributions but would deny financial services the right to unhindered trade (known as “passporting”).
The former SAS reservist is best remembered by many for resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention. After remaining outside Cameron’s team, he became a redoubtable defender of civil liberties from the backbenches. The council estate boy was also one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).
When I interviewed him in May, Davis warned that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed). It was a stance that May abandoned shortly after launching her leadership campaign.
Davis boasts the rare feat of joining the government while simultaneously suing it. In partnership with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, he launched a European court action against the Home Office, May’s former department, over the bulk retention of communications data. “I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill,” he told me.
As one of the “three Brexiters” at the head of May’s government (the others being Boris Johnson and Liam Fox), Davis will compete not only for supremacy over policy. The trio have been ordered to share Chevening, the foreign secretary’s traditional country residence, in Kent.