Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with David Davis MP

Sunday 30 September 2018


SOPHY RIDGE: Now our next guest was at the heart of the Brexit negotiations until the summer when he dramatically quit over the Prime Minister’s Chequers proposals, so what does former Brexit Secretary David Davis made of the situation we’re in at the minute? Well let’s find out shall we. Thank you very much for being with us this early on a Sunday morning, we appreciate it. Now this is presumably the last Conservative party conference before we leave the European Union. Boris Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary, on the front pages of the newspaper today describing the current proposal on the table as deranged. What’s the adjective that you would use to describe the Chequers plan?

DAVID DAVIS: Just wrong. Boris specialises in more dramatic language than me but it’s just wrong, it doesn’t do either what the referendum led people to expect – bring back control of laws, it actually explicitly doesn’t do that and it doesn’t bring back control of borders so those two things straight away, it’s much more than that but just two things straight away doesn’t meet our referendum promise or indeed our manifesto promises so it’s not something … Even when it’s done, even when it’s concluded, if we got Chequers the Europe issue wouldn’t go away, the toothache we’ve had for thirty years on this subject would still be there for another twenty years so it’s not the right answer.

SR: So you can’t help thinking, we are here aren’t we in this situation, six months before we leave the European Union and Theresa May says that the only credible proposal on the table is Chequers, you say that it’s wrong – you have got to take some responsibility for that haven’t you because you were Brexit Secretary for two years?

DAVID DAVIS: Well you should read my resignation letter, I told her at each stage where I thought we were going the wrong way from the way we started negotiations immediately after the election campaign, the concession on Ireland in December – I said no, that’s not the right way for the government to go. My role at the end of the day was to lead the negotiations, she decides. At each stage I thought well, maybe I can make that work even though I don’t really like it but eventually it got to the point where you can’t make it work, it is so far off what is the right strategy.

SR: But why didn’t she listen to you? You have got to take responsibility for that then haven’t you? You failed to …

DAVID DAVIS: Well yes, I said I failed to persuade the Prime Minister, that’s quite right and the simple truth of it, you see you’ve got a whole system here. If you added up all the Permanent Secretaries who voted to leave the European Union I suspect the answer would be zero and the whole of Whitehall has a particular perspective and I think, as I’ve said already, they misread Europe, they misread the way the negotiations should be played. They also misread what was an acceptable outcome for the British people. Now all of those things one man couldn’t stop and one of the reasons for resigning was to make it absolutely plain that this issue was not capable of being resolved the way the government was going. I couldn’t do that in government, I always in government, in Cabinet, took the view I’m not going to brief, I’m not going to spin, I’m not going to talk against my colleagues, you can only do that outside of Cabinet and that’s why I resigned.

SR: So who is to blame then? Is it Theresa May, is it the official around her, is it Ollie Robbins?

DAVID DAVIS: Well it’s a mixture of all. I don’t pick out individuals, I know people love to pick on an individual but actually it’s the whole system, it’s stacked in a certain way.

SR: And by the system do you mean the civil service?

DAVID DAVIS: Well the Advisory Group, all those people and the simple truth is that actually there is a resolution and by the way, you say it is only six months but actually that’s plenty of time bluntly. I’ve always said this from the beginning, the issue in this is going to be the last month, it’s not going to be the two years that run up to it, it’s going to be the last month because the European Union always uses time, always tries to pressurise you, always takes to you to what they call the cliff edge and then sees if you panic.

SR: So you think there will be a deal then?

DAVID DAVIS: Oh yes, I think that there will be. I think it is 80, 90% likely there will be a deal and I think actually the deal with end up as something like what Boris calls Super Canada, what somebody else called Free Trade Bluff – basically a free trade [deal] but we are going to have a very scary few months, between now and about November is going to be really scary. Everyone is going to be calling each other’s bluff, there is all sorts of brinkmanship going to go on. That’s normal, that’s the European Union’s daily bread and that’s what we’ve got to be ready for. That’s why we’re making the argument now, that’s why it was important to resign in July, because we’ve got to make the arguments in the last round. Chequers won’t fly, it won’t fly in Europe and it won’t fly in parliament.

SR: So Brussels won’t accept it, do you disagree with Boris Johnson there then?

DAVID DAVIS: Well I think what Brussels may well do is add a few more things on. A lot of people don’t like Chequers, even more this is the absolute last step you can go, we’ve made all the concessions we can so Brussels will want to put something else, they’ll want to put customs union on, they’ll want to put some other requirements, some money or immigration or whatever and she hasn’t got any room for that I’m afraid so I think Chequers will die one way or another, either in Brussels or in Westminster, and then we’ll need another alternative. And that’s why, basically I wrote that alternative last year, over a year ago.

SR: Let’s talk about the alternatives that are on offer because there’s a bit of an inconvenient truth, isn’t there, with the alternatives on offer and that is the Irish border situation. It’s very serious what happens with that border, what’s the solution?

DAVID DAVIS: Well I don’t accept the phrase an inconvenient truth, I think it’s an inconvenient exaggeration and the reason for this, I am reasonably familiar with the Irish border, over the course of 20 years or so. There is already a border there, there’s a customs border, there’s a judicial border, there’s a currency border, those borders all operate invisibly. The only way you can tell is the colour of the stripe in the middle of the road changes colour as you go over the border, but the customs operation, by talking to each other, the Irish and Northern Ireland customs manage to catch lots of smugglers, there was a massive cigarette haul only a few weeks ago. It can be done and …

SR: You talk about things such as a currency border for example, there is a difference isn’t there between taking some euros over the border and back again and taking some sheep over the border for example. It’s a different kind of border that we’re talking about isn’t it and it’s not helpful is it to try and over-simplify …

DAVID DAVIS: The people over-simplifying it are the Irish government and the Commission by saying you have got to have a sweeping political answer. There is no acceptable sweeping political answer. What they have to do is look at the detail, the detail of tax on the border, because the biggest thing – you’re right, it doesn’t matter if you carry a euro or a pound, you can buy your drinks in Belfast in euros or in Dublin in pounds. The simple truth is it’s tax, which we deal with already, it’s regulations – which is the hardest one and it’s what they call Rules of Origin, that is goods coming from the rest of the world, going into Europe by the back door through Belfast. We can control that, there are only five borders in the North of Ireland and five key ports, we can control that. The issue is regulation and you’re right, it’s cattle and that sort of thing crossing the border, it’s milk going backwards and forwards across the border, it’s that sort of thing.

SR: It’s important isn’t it – and you’re a military man, you know how important, how sensitive the border is and we’re still trying to … young people died not long ago.

DAVID DAVIS: Oh yes, I knew some of them but I raised this in negotiations before the Commission did for exactly that reason, I think it is a moral responsibility there.

SR: So it is not an exaggeration is it? It’s a hugely important …

DAVID DAVIS: No, what I’m saying is the problem is being exaggerated not the importance, I must distinguish between that and the regulatory stuff, well there are already special arrangements which apply. It is a single epidemiological zone so when you take cattle into Northern Ireland you do have to inspect them, so you can protect that. There are special regulatory arrangements, the other thing that is unified between the north and south is what’s called the Single Electricity Market, so you have special arrangements on Northern Ireland electricity generators. Without putting that border in, you can do minor – well not minor but significant detailed changed and we’re not even looking at that. We were talking to the Irish government before Mr Varadkar came into power and we were talking about these things and all of a sudden they’ve stopped. Now it’s being used for political reasons, it’s a very important issue but what’s being exaggerated is the difficulty of resolving it. We can do it and look, the best test, rather than dispute the details, your viewers should just ask themselves who do they believe most – David Trimble in Northern Ireland, a Nobel Prize winner who put his life on the line to create the Irish peace process or Barnier or Junker? Trimble supports the arguments I put about resolving the Irish border issue.

SR: So would you accept a longer transition to get this right, the border issue?

DAVID DAVIS: We don’t need one, we literally don’t need one. We’ve got 21 months coming anyway, that’s way beyond what we need to do this. Most of these issues are manageable not because … the delay is not an issue about time, the issue is about willingness to take on the [government].

SR: Another big question of course as we go into the conference is leadership. Theresa May has had a rocky few months, there have been open discussions about her future among Conservative MPs, would you support her leading the Conservatives into the next election?

DAVID DAVIS: Well that’s up to her frankly …

SR: Well it might not just be up to her, there might be a no confidence vote, so how would you vote in a no confidence vote?

DAVID DAVIS: To keep her in. Look, when I resigned I took a great deal of trouble to depersonalise this because it seems to me we are conflating leadership on the one hand and policy on the other, I want a change of policy, not a change of leader and where I differ from Boris, who is on the front page of the papers this morning, is he is conflating the two. I think this is such an important issue, we must keep it away from internal Tory party backers and from leadership issues. It’s such an important issue. Lots of things he says I agree with but on this we differ.

SR: Let’s talk about Boris Johnson shall we, do you think he would make a good leader?

DAVID DAVIS: Well that would be probably after I’ve gone.

SR: Well you’ve worked closely with him, what’s your view?

DAVID DAVIS: Well take what he said this morning in the papers, he wants to cancel HS2 and spend it on a bridge in Northern Ireland. Well I don’t want to do that. I think one of the blights of British politics is politicians having fantastic ideas that cost a fortune and don’t do much good and that would be one of them. If you are going to use the money use it for broadband or something else. On housing, he’s right, the issue is there but his answer’s wrong. We need to completely rewrite the housing policy. Boris is a great mate of mine, we have a very knockabout friendship but quite a lot of his ideas I think are good headlines but not necessarily good policies.

SR: So not perhaps the right person to lead the party?

DAVID DAVIS: Well as I said, I don't think it’s an issue for today. The real problem is if we conflate this issue with mode of Brexit issue. We can get mode of Brexit wrong because it gets conflated with other things. Brexit matters more than any leadership issue or leadership of any person and that’s something the public should bear in mind, the action matters more than the person.

SR: I wonder if that applies to Jeremy Corbyn as well, would you be prepared to vote down the Prime Minister’s Chequers plan – and we know that you want to vote against it – if it could mean, which it could mean, a general election and Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10? Is that something you’d be comfortable with?

DAVID DAVIS: Well I dismiss the premise really. I will vote against Chequers full stop and it won’t lead to a general election. I am not going to debate the fine tactics because as you can imagine that is quite important coming in but we are capable of managing this through and what used to be the threat of the World Trade Organisation or no deal leave, that was the threat – I know that inside out, I’ve been studying that for two and a half years. There are 300 plans to deal with, I know it’s not as frightening as all the project fear things so I’ll take that risk but we won’t have to take the risk of Corbyn.

SR: So no general election you don’t think?

DAVID DAVIS: No, no general election but it will be a very, very exciting autumn in Westminster.

SR: Why do you think that then?

DAVID DAVIS: Well because the government is going to, if it sticks with Chequers it will lose some votes.

SR: And that could be a problem for the Prime Minister?

DAVID DAVIS: Well losing votes is always a problem for a government but governments have lost in the past. I led the first defeat of Tony Blair on 90 days, he didn’t suddenly resign the next day and that was a fundamental central policy of his government.

SR: Okay, well we’ll have to wait and see. David Davis, thank you very much for your time this morning.

DAVID DAVIS: My pleasure.