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“May's got two more months”: Can Stewart Jackson kill Chequers?

David Davis’s former chief of staff and right-hand man on where Brexit – and the Prime Minister – should go next. 

Stewart Jackson has a problem. It is a breezy Friday afternoon in Peterborough, and, in a branch of Côte in the shadow of its cathedral, the city’s former Conservative MP is considering dessert. His is a peach crumble. Do they do custard? “We don’t do custard,” explains an embarrassed waitress. “It’s traditional French, you see.”

Remainers could be forgiven a wry chuckle at the sight of David Davis’s former chief of staff, presented with a European menu, asking for something that isn’t on offer. But Jackson still has cause to smile.

Nearly 900 miles away in Salzburg, Theresa May’s Brexit plan – the cause of his departure from Whitehall for the trenches of the Tory guerrilla war – has been demolished by the EU. As we lunch, the Prime Minister attacks her European counterparts in a fiery speech, further limiting her room for manoeuvre.

Brexit hangs in the balance. Chequers is dead. May’s premiership is getting there. For Leavers like Jackson, who is still a loyal cornerman, strategist and spinner to the former Brexit secretary – he is now leading the snappily-named campaign to force the Prime Minister Chuck Chequers  – this is vindication.

“There’s no covering up that Salzburg was a big debacle,” Jackson says. “In a strange way, it’s reassuring that it’s turned out like that. What would have worried me, both as a strong believer in Brexit, and as someone who really believes in parliamentary democracy and representative politics, is the idea that was gaining ground – that the deep state had already stitched it up, that they’d already rolled the pitch and that this was all choreography.

“This would have to be pretty adept acting to have humiliated the Prime Minister in the way that they did. I do believe that this was the real deal, and that now we’re reaching the crunch point in negotiations – the denouement.”

We order bottles of Meteor, a French lager, and ribeye steak. Jackson takes it medium. He is 53, entertaining company and speaks candidly, with frequent recourse to daddish one-liners: “I always joke that it’s hard to hate the Liberal Democrats. But it’s well worth the effort.”

Despite the tumult of recent months, he expects a Brexit deal could be reached in November or December. But how, or rather, where, does this one end? The Prime Minister is on a glide path to Norway; Brexiteers like Jackson would prefer Canada, but better. Then there is the prospect of no-deal – “or WTO”, he adds with impeccable discipline – which he chalks up at 40 per cent (after December, he says, it will be too late to discuss issues like the backstop, and an Article 50 extension is out of the question).

The only way to win the support of the Eurosceptic Tories and avert it, Jackson says, is a Proper Brexit in the form of a free trade deal, not the vague statement of political intent that many expect.“This idea that you can sign a giant direct debit on the back of a fag packet, saying: ‘Yeah, £39bn, great deal, get me back to me later when you’ve got some ideas.’ It’s just not going to wash. It’s going to be very fractious and febrile in October, November, December.”

He warns that Leave MPs will not buy it. “David Davis has always taken the view that the EU pocket a concession, then they move on,” he says. “This is a super-concession.  Part of the issue is: what possible incentive have the EU got for cutting us a really good deal on trade if we’re committed in primary legislation, and in an international treaty that has been ratified by them, that we’re giving them £39bn? Our leverage, our wiggle room, has gone then, and we’re very much in an asymmetrical negotiation.”

But what about Michael Gove’s argument that Chequers is a mere starting point, and could be hardened after the fact? “It’s absolute nonsense,” snorts Jackson. “It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.” As for the Environment Secretary himself: “I think: where’s your courage, and where’s your tenacity and determination and patriotism now? This analogy with Michael Collins – he wants to get to the dominion status, and then a republic – it’s not right. This is an international treaty which will bind us in. We can’t just say: ‘Listen guys, I was having a bad day, can we rewind?’ It’s not going to be like that.”

He fears such tactics could have profound reverberations. “The other thing is: if you institutionalise instability, fractiousness, and division and bitterness into yet another a parliament, it could finish off our system. We could have a populist uprising. So yeah, it’s uncomfortable and difficult now. But what most people care about isn’t WTO schedules and Martin Selmayr’s plans to dominate the world, it’s their granny’s hip replacement and their kids’ schooling. The sooner we can get Brexit out of the way, the better.”

But Brexiteers like Jackson, the man disobligingly nicknamed “Wacko Jacko” by some colleagues (he says he does not care about abuse: “If you want to be popular, go into light entertainment”), want it out of the way on their terms. 

The Prime Minister, having lashed herself to the Chequers mast, is unwilling to offer them. Several members of her cabinet, including Davis’s successor Dominic Raab, are urging pursue Canada as a backup plan, rather than an economically disastrous no-deal. Jackson says her window of opportunity is only just ajar. “She has a small window now. What Salzburg did was paint a pretty stark binary choice for her: complete capitulation to the EU, which would cost her premiership and split the Tory Party, or another way forward that isn’t Chequers. That choice is between no-deal and Canada Plus. The cards are falling into place.”

How small is the window? “I think she’s got two more months. I think she can turn it round if she gives a good performance at conference...if she can present herself as someone who’s done their very best in the national interest but has been smashed on the rock of EU intransigence. Sacking Philip Hammond would be a good start...Her poll ratings would go up 10 per cent if she fired him.”

This leads us to an inevitable question. Jackson and Davis had plenty of time in government to try and make Canada Plus – recently rebranded SuperCanada by Boris Johnson – happen. What went wrong? He dismisses the common conception of Davis in Downing Street as a petulant, preening diva, constantly threatening to resign, as an “urban myth”.  “He was loyal, and on message with the Prime Minister. The shame about that is that it was not reciprocated.”

Instead, Jackson argues, his operation was “always hobbled” by Downing Street. The mistake he and Davis made was to be “perhaps too trusting. We were too collegiate. I would say this about David Davis, but he didn’t brief, he was very loyal to the Prime Minister, and he took her on trust...He believed that she was being honest and candid with him.”

Steve Baker, Davis’s deputy, has described Dexeu has a “Potemkin structure” disguising the concentration of power in Downing Street’s hands. Jackson agrees, and complains Davis was frozen out of the process that eventually produced Chequers. “Someone will write a PhD thesis about the failure of cabinet government... I just don’t think it’s the way to run things. Olly Robbins said it was an iterative process. It was iterative if iterative is taking nine versions of the White Paper, shredding them on the Thursday afternoon, and saying: ‘Here’s one I prepared earlier!’ I wouldn’t probably describe that as iterative.”

For all of Jackson’s understandable frustration at Robbins’ dominance, it is arguable that the cabinet’s Brexiteers set themselves on the path to Chequers when they did not resign over May’s acceptance of the need for an Irish border backstop in December (Jackson’s mother was from Roscommon, but he says he “can’t believe the EU would crash a hugely lucrative trade deal...on the basis of relatively minor cross-border trade”).

He defends Davis’s decision not to jump in December. “At that stage, he felt that he could influence the process... He did, on a number of occasions, say: ‘We’re not doing this right.’ He was concerned about the very prescriptive sequencing, which actually is a thread that leads to all these problems. He complained about the backstop. He complained about the delays to the White Paper.”

He urges ministers still inside the tent but opposed to Chequers, like Penny Mordaunt and Esther McVey, to do the same. “I think Penny and Esther are right to stay, but I think their position will be very difficult if there are further concessions. If they surrender any more, their position is going to be untenable, as will the Prime Minister’s.”

Outside of government, meanwhile, Davis is still complaining. His grievances, and those of the European Research Group, are clear. Less obvious is how they will resolve them. With no majority among MPs for Chequers, passing a Canada-style deal seems optimistic at best. But Jackson believes that most powerful impulse among Tories – the desire to cling on to office – could win the day for a free trade agreement.

“If the alternative then is no-deal, then you might persuade the middle 40 per cent of the Tory Party, which is pragmatic and doesn’t fixate about Brexit, and wants it all over,” he says. “Those people are going to ask what’s it going to look like on 30 March 2019, and where are we going to be electorally in the years to come. I think they’re worried about no-deal for that reason, and they’re also worried about what Chequers would do to the electoral coalition of the Tory Party. The polling is pretty grim.”

He compares the potential electoral consequences to those experienced by John Major in 1997. “People say that people don’t care about Chequers. They do. [Britain crashing out of the European exchange rate mechanism] happened in 1992 but it took the electorate five years to take revenge on the Tory Party. I think there’s a good 10 per cent of the electorate that’s predisposed to vote Conservative that would defect if they think Chequers a capitulation, which it is.”

Can anyone save the Tories from that fate at the next election, once May is finished by a confidence vote, even if she wins? He warns that the next leader will need a policy prospectus that goes beyond Europe, but Brexiteer MPs will not back anyone who campaigned for Remain as their next leader (which would rule out Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt, the two frontrunners). “One way or the other, the decision that you took in June 2016 has marked you out, and some people took the wrong decision. That will weigh against them.”

The consensus is that there cannot be a coronation. But not even for Davis as caretaker prime minister? “He’s always said that the leadership issue, as far as it goes, should not be conflated with getting the best deal out of Brexit. But would he rule himself out? I really don’t know. Nobody knows where we’ll be in November and December, or March, so I wouldn’t really like to predict that...He’ll always reinvent himself. He’s been public accounts chairman, Tory chairman, he’s been an SAS reservist, he’s been the scourge of governments on civil liberties, he’s been Brexit secretary, and in parliament 31 years. You can’t really write him off. Who knows.”

Though he lost his seat in last year’s Corbyn surge after a “completely crap...awful, churlish” campaign from May – he intends to run for the Commons again, but not in Peterborough – he is convinced that the Labour leader cannot win. Nor does he anticipate a snap election should Tory rebels make good on their promise to vote the final Brexit deal down.

“This idea that you’d have an immediate vote of no-confidence is ridiculous,” he says. “Which Tory MP’s going to vote for that? None of them. So where would the Prime Minister be if she lost the Withdrawal Agreement in the meaningful vote and then tabled a confidence motion? She’d be back where she was the day before. Nobody is going to vote for a general election.” Nor does he fear a second referendum (he predicts a 60-40 victory for Leave).

But what political price will the Conservatives pay if, with Chequers defeated, May makes good on her threat that no-deal is better than a bad deal? Canada, she insists, would be such a deal. Jackson, by now rid of his peach crumble, says Britain is more ready for crashing out “than the politicians think, but not as much as I would like”.

He foresees a scenario where, just as he might yet, Britain has the last laugh. “The price [of no-deal] will be, if people perceive that we were so useless that we didn’t prepare at all, then we will deserve the opprobrium of the people on that. But I suspect that if we did our best, and we were typically British and had a stiff upper lip and we were soldiering on, but the EU sought to be deliberately provocative and aggressive, then I suspect the British public would say ‘we’re trying to do our best here, we’ve got to respect the decision we made, we can leave as friends or we can fight’. And I think that might backfire on the EU.”

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.