For newspapers with only the Olympics to write about during August, the squabbling “Three Brexiteers” – the senior ministers supposedly tasked with executing the will of the British people to remove us from the European Union – came as a gift. The men concerned are David Davis, the new Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union; Boris Johnson, who is what our passports used to call Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; and Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade. This odd trio amused the press for several reasons, mostly bogus: that they share responsibility for securing Brexit (untrue); that they all hate each other (untrue); that Fox has parked his tanks on Johnson’s lawn to the extent of demanding that some of the powers of the Foreign Office be transferred to his department (apparently true); and that they must take it in turns to use Chevening, hitherto the foreign secretary’s grace-and-favour, 115-room pile in Kent (certainly true, though none rushed to avail himself of the privilege). Inevitably, the whole question is far more layered and complex than the silly-season column fillers even began to suggest.
The dynamic between the three men is not straightforward. Davis and Fox are hardcore Brexiteers of long standing. In this year’s referendum campaign Davis was more closely associated with the unofficial Leave.eu group and its sister organisation Grassroots Out, and shared platforms with (among others) Nigel Farage and the Labour MP Kate Hoey. Fox, who announced just before Christmas 2015 that he would support Leave, appeared on various platforms and was more closely associated with the mainstream Vote Leave campaign, which was little more than a Tory front operation.
Davis was runner-up to David Cameron in the Tories’ 2005 leadership election, Fox an also-ran. There was little empathy between the two men during that race. Fox is immersed in US politics and has a wide range of senior contacts in the Republican Party, in and out of Congress, and in those days was seen as something of a neocon. Davis is a more conventional Tory, but with that 19th-century Liberal strain in his political make-up that also distinguished Margaret Thatcher (he calls himself a “Thatcherite”). He and Fox share many economic ideas as well as a dislike of the EU, but their ideas about foreign policy and, particularly, the degree of reverence with which the US world-view should be treated, differ sharply.
In June 2008 Davis resigned as shadow home secretary and from the Commons, triggering a by-election, in which he stood, to draw attention to the erosion of civil liberties in Britain. David Cameron, who found Davis wearing, saw this as a stunt and took the opportunity not to readmit him to the shadow cabinet after his re-election a month later. It was claimed Cameron offered Davis a place in the coalition cabinet in 2010 to appease the right, but Davis – disliking a range of the coalition’s policies –
preferred the back benches. His friends believed his leadership ambitions had not been quelled and that he would build up his constituency in the party better by not being in government with the Liberal Democrats. No offer of a job in cabinet came after June 2015, which seems to have hardened Davis further against the Cameron line on Europe; but Davis, not the most popular man in the parliamentary party, chose not to offer himself as a potential leader after Cameron’s auto-defenestration this summer.
Fox, however, did, even though there was equally scant evidence of his popularity. Finishing bottom of the first ballot, he then shrewdly put himself behind Theresa May, with whom he is said to have cordial relations, rather than one of the Brexiteer candidates. This helped ensure his return to cabinet. He had served in 2010-11 as defence secretary, departing in odd circumstances. It was disclosed that Adam Werritty, 17 years Fox’s junior and best man at his wedding, had been passing himself off as an adviser to Fox, but wasn’t on the official payroll and had no security clearance. Werritty reportedly attended 40 of 70 recorded engagements that Fox made as defence secretary, had been Fox’s business partner in his Atlantic Bridge charity, and had accompanied him on numerous official trips.
Though no harm had been done to British interests, Fox conceded that he had made an error of judgement and resigned. For him, too, the road back was long: he turned down the offer of a minister of state’s job at the Foreign Office in July 2014 in order to retain the freedom to criticise government (and particularly economic) policy. He became ever less warm to Cameron, who offered him nothing after the 2015 Tory victory. His Euroscepticism is of long duration, and it hardened in his absence from government.
Boris Johnson has no such pedigree, which begins to explain the suspicion in which Davis and Fox are said to hold him. It was shortly before the end of his second term as mayor of London, and the day after Michael Gove’s spectacular announcement that he would be voting to leave the EU, that Johnson decided which way to jump. Few in his party believed his choice to embrace Leave was made after anything other than a calculation about how best to further his rampant ambition to lead the Conservative Party and become prime minister. He had spent many years as a columnist being rude about Europe, but there is a world of difference between that and advocating complete withdrawal. Until Gove blew the whistle on Johnson as a potentially inadequate prime minister – to the relief of scores of Tory MPs who nonetheless do nothing to defend Gove against accusations of disloyalty – the plan seemed to be working perfectly.
Theresa May’s appointment of Johnson was cunning. Although pundits include him in the trio conducting Brexit, his role seems limited to maintaining friendships with those we are divorcing. An early engagement was a Bastille Day party in London, at which the French audience booed him. May’s establishment of the Brexit Department under Davis means the Foreign Office follows rather than leads on this most crucial question of foreign policy. She is no fool, and knows that among Johnson’s attested failings is his inability (apparently because of idleness) to acquaint himself with detail. The accomplishment of our departure from Europe is greatly about detail and the Prime Minister knew he could not master it.
Davis had been a successful minister for Europe in the 1990s, had worked in the private sector for years – he was an executive with Tate & Lyle – and, as a genuine Leaver, had the motivation as well as the experience to see that the job was done. However, making Johnson Foreign Secretary allowed May to appease that section of the party, mainly at the grass roots, that believes he is a great statesman. Yet word from Downing Street is that as well as Europe being parcelled off to Davis, the really important issues of foreign policy – notably relations with the US, China and Russia – will be handled from No 10, the Foreign Office again following rather than leading. This confirms a trend begun by Tony Blair nearly 20 years ago. So the powers Johnson will have are unlikely to make him the Anthony Eden de nos jours.
Davis surfaced for an anodyne speech in Ulster on 1 September confirming his desire to avoid tariffs when trading with the EU, but has kept a low profile since his appointment for, it seems, two reasons. First, his task is considerable, and while his department and the expert negotiators it requires are being assembled it was wiser to avoid saying anything, despite the growing restlessness of some of his allies on the right. His statement to the Commons on Monday was no more revelatory, serving to confirm what little we knew but to emphasise that it is not likely we will stay in the single market – the obvious conclusion to draw from May’s insistence that free movement of people is over. Even if the government has decided to leave by means of repealing the European Communities Act 1972, which many Tory Brexiteers think probable, there is nothing Davis can say about detail until the government decides exactly how to pursue that strategy – and that may be weeks yet.
Second, he knows Remainers outnumber Brexiteers in cabinet. He is deeply concerned to bring support with him, and knows he will do that best by keeping May close. Ministers who wouldn’t have a career in politics but for her will be careful to follow her lead. In July and August, May made it clear that she favoured caution, and caution was what her secretary of state provided. So, when she said (again) at last week’s special cabinet meeting at Chequers that Brexit means Brexit – that those Remainers in denial should recognise the inevitability of our leaving – and that immigration controls were inevitable, it seemed that she and Davis were united on the key questions, and the hardliners in their party could rest easy.
The tensions among the trio of ministers were really between just two of them, Johnson and Fox, and Fox appears responsible. Probably presuming on what he considered his good relationship with May, he asked during August that the Foreign Office should lose its role in trading relationships. May immediately voiced annoyance at what some of her colleagues and officials branded a “turf war”. Her anger may have been provoked in part by her failure to see the clash coming – she created overlaps between departments in her restructuring of Whitehall that a little more thought would have avoided – but also by her sense that a public which voted for Brexit would expect her ministers to be getting on with it, not jockeying for position and making the political class even more despised than it already was.
Fox asked to have “economic diplomacy” moved to his department in a “rational restructuring”. He had a point. He has no responsibility for securing Brexit – that lies squarely in Davis’s department – but until it is accomplished he cannot usurp the EU and make definitive trading arrangements with other nations. He can, however, hold preparatory talks with his American friends and others (he has just visited India). That does create an overlap of economic diplomacy, so one presumes the arguments between Fox and Johnson have only just begun. Fox claimed his acquisition of these powers was “crucial to the delivery of objectives I have been set by the Prime Minister”.
May slapped him down, to the amusement of Johnson partisans, but Johnson had to second some officials to Fox’s department. Fox found himself briefed against by a Foreign Office mandarin who called him “nutty and obsessive” and likened him to “Donald Rumsfeld on steroids”. This did not restrain Fox, who told a US radio show in July that his department would be taking over “a wing” of the Foreign Office, a reflection of the importance of its duties. He added: “We are effectively taking all of the elements that were UK trade and investment out of what was the Business Department. We’re taking defence and security exports from what was the Ministry of Defence where I used to be secretary of state. We’re taking UK export finance out of the Treasury, and we’re creating a totally new trade negotiation department all within itself.” Fox has also been given the venerable title of President of the Board of Trade, and has not been idle. Besides his mission to India, his department is about to open three new offices in the US – in Minneapolis, Raleigh and San Diego – to add to the existing 11.
After Fox’s spat with Johnson the two ministers, and Davis, who seemed merely an innocent bystander, held a “clear the air” meeting at the Cabinet Office on 24 August. In so far as differences between the three matter, the main one was over immigration: Davis and Fox wanted border controls with Europe reinstated, whatever the effect on the single market, but Johnson didn’t. Given May’s statement after the Chequers meeting, Johnson seems to have lost.
The initiative is now very much with Davis. Some backbench colleagues are telling him, in effect, there doesn’t need to be a negotiation: John Redwood has made this point seriatim on his blog, and vocally during a BBC Radio 4 documentary presented by Gus O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary, at the end of August. Brexiteers have accused O’Donnell, and other former officials who have joined the debate, of talking up the difficulties of leaving. What the hardliners want is for Davis to announce the repeal of the European Communities Act, by which we joined what is now the EU. Given the EU’s net trade surplus with the UK – £70bn a year – the hardline view is that the EU has much more to lose than we do from denying us access to the single market.
As one of Davis’s friends told me: “There are 47 countries that have access to the single market without having to concede free movement of people. America, Russia and China have Most Favoured Nation status with the EU. Given all the money the EU makes from us, is it really in their interests to offer us a worse deal than any of those 50 countries?” This line is playing well in the Brexit Department. Davis is also being told that whatever the rhetoric of other nations – notably the doomed regime in France – Europe relies too much on doing business on favourable terms in the City of London to deny “passporting” rights (the ability to do business across the EU while based in the UK) to British financial institutions.
Backbenchers anxious for the process to start are telling Davis to say to the EU that it can either allow Britain access to the single market, without insisting on free movement, in return for tariff-free operation here; or the two parties can trade on World Trade Organisation terms, with tariffs, which will harm the EU more than it will harm the UK. The lack of hostile response from Germany, the biggest importer of British exports in Europe, gives the Brexiteers cause for hope that things may not be so acrimonious, and the reality far from the gloom of George Osborne’s Project Fear.
For the moment, the three ministers are not squabbling: but then it is a mistake to see them as interdependent. May will have to sort out the overlaps between Johnson and Fox’s departments: but Davis knows what he has to do, and what his remit is to do it. What remains to be decided is whether this will be a so-called hard Brexit (coming out on our terms) or “soft” (coming out on Europe’s). The rhetoric so far suggests the former; unless Davis forfeits May’s support, that is how it will stay. May must also remember that if she does feel she must stop backing Davis, she will not only have to find someone else to do his job, but deal with backbenchers who remain to be convinced that she will see the job through. In the end, as chief executive, fulfilling the will of the British people will be her responsibility.
Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs