By Matt Evans, British Ambassador to the European Student Think Tank.
The chain of events that occurred as a response to the Brexit vote was unprecedented in modern British political history. As soon as Cameron had announced his resignation on the Friday morning after the result, political correspondents and journalists began working overtime, in order to maintain up to date with the seemingly endless array of stories that emerged. This, understandably, caused a great deal of confusion for many of the top reporters, who instead reverted to generic clichés, claiming it was “like an episode of House of Cards/Game of Thrones/insert big-budget TV drama of your choice.”
Yet, after all the confusion, back stabbings, and already broken promises, a swift and brutal Conservative leadership contest meant that on the 13th of July, former Home Secretary Theresa May replaced David Cameron as British Prime Minister, becoming only the second woman to do so. Stating that “Brexit means Brexit”, May immediately underwent a major cabinet reshuffle, removing several prominent names such as Chancellor George Osborne, instead adjusting its makeup to reflect the new political climate. In came the Brexiteers, with Boris Johnson appointed Foreign Secretary, Liam Fox as Secretary for the newly created Department of International Trade, and the hapless Andrea Leadsom, as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, surely responsible for replacing the Common Agricultural Policy and Fisheries Policy.
Yet the most important appointment was to a man relatively unknown outside of the Conversative Party, with David Davis appointed to the rather wordy post of Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, or, rather, “Brexit Secretary.” This appointment came as a surprise to most, with Davis having been associated with the fringes of the Tory Party for some time now. Therefore, it is necessary to find out more on the man given a hugely important post, and what we can expect from his input on the negotiations.
First elected to Parliament in 1987, the Yorkshire born Davis has been a lifelong Eurosceptic. He came to prominence steadily throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, seen to represent the Thatcherite wing of the party. Davis was long touted as a Conservative leader, standing in the 2005 leadership election however ultimately losing to David Cameron after running a mediocre campaign. Following this, Davis continued in the Shadow Cabinet before resigning in 2008 due to, in his view, the erosion of civil liberties, something that Davis has long campaigned about. Despite being offered a Cabinet position when Cameron was forming the Coalition government in 2010, Davis refused, instead opting to remain a vocal member of the Tory backbenchers, and was one of many backbenchers who had pressured Cameron into providing a referendum. We should thus judge Davis’ hitherto parliamentary career as one in which he has been an influential voice on the political fringes, yet has been devoid of any major responsibilities.
That May appointed Davis to a role of such significance has rightly raised eyebrows, with Davis not among the prominent Leave campaigners. This has left many to question what Davis aims to achieve from the negotiations and how he will go about them. Recently, on Sky News, he indicated that Article 50 would be triggered early 2017, giving the government sufficient time to formulate an official aim of Brexit. Writing for the website Conservative Home a few days before his appointment, Davis, on what is to happen to the UK’s relationship to the Single Market, claims that “after much wrangling”, the “ideal outcome is tariff-free access.” As this will conflict with the Conservative Party’s desire to restrict freedom of movement, Davis goes on to state that “Once the European nations realise that we are not going to budge on control of our own borders, they will want to talk, in their own interest.” Thus, Davis, seemingly in agreement with the bulk of Brexiteers, aims to achieve the incredibly ambitious objective of maintaining full access to the Single Market while at the same time gaining the ability to limit freedom of movement. Likewise, Davis has embraced the rhetoric of fellow Brexiteers that Britain, while maintain close ties with Europe, should instead look to establish free trade agreements with like the U.S, China, and Australia. Of course, Davis will not have a free run when it comes to the negotiations, as May is ultimately going to have the final say, with the Foreign Office also wanting to exerting its influence over the deal.
Davis consequently falls alongside the category of idealistic Leave politicians, who fail to understand that the negotiations will require immense compromise, especially from the British side of the table. So far, it appears that Davis is unequipped to deal with the likes of Juncker and Merkel who have insisted that they will not compromise on the EU’s Four Freedoms, yet is seems that Davis will stutter along maintaining the possibility of this. Add to this Davis’ own lack of experience in top level diplomacy and the future looks far from positive.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to envisage a negotiation deal that will be beneficial to the UK. As John Lanchester has recently argued in an excellent essay in the London Review of Books, whatever the outcome of the negotiations, it is almost inevitable that it will result in a betrayal of the British working class. For if the UK is to adopt a Norwegian style model in which the UK frees itself from certain aspects of EU policy, such as fishing, yet continues to gain full access to the Single Market, it will have no choice but to agree to continued freedom of movement. However, if it chose to leave the Single Market, while the UK would in theory be able to stop freedom of movement from EU member states, this would likely be disastrous to the UK economy. As a result, the UK would be forced make budget cuts and potentially tax increases. As is usual with this brand of economics, it would hit those poorest the hardest.
So can Davis deliver a comprehensive, favourable deal for the UK? In short, it looks highly unlikely, with a lack of diplomatic nous likely to be made clear once formal negotiations begin. The lifelong Eurosceptic is tasked with a momentous job, and will have to take the lead and be proactive rather than reverting to his pastime of protesting from the side-lines. Retain full access to the Single Market or restrict freedom of movement? The most likely outcome is an ambiguous blend between the two.
 Davis, D., “Trade deals. Tax cuts. And taking time before triggering Article 50. A Brexit economic strategy for Britain”, Conservative Home, 14/7/16. Available at: http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2016/07/david-davis-trade-deals-tax-cuts-and-taking-time-before-triggering-article-50-a-brexit-economic-strategy-for-britain.html (accessed: 27/7/16)
 Lanchester, J., “Brexit Blues”, London Review of Books, Vol. 38 No.15, 28/7/16. Available at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n15/john-lanchester/brexit-blues