In the last few months, David Davis has appeared a rather peripheral figure. After the December deal, all the talk was all of how Olly Robbins and Jeremy Heywood were now the key figures in Theresa May’s Brexit team. But, as I say in The Sun today, this week David Davis reasserted himself.
I understand that on Wednesday night he was shuttling back and forth from Number 10 fixing the paper on the future economic partnership. As one member of the inner Cabinet puts it, the paper ‘needed pulling over to a more realistic view of what Brexit meant against a more Heywood view of what it meant’. The paper Theresa May produced at Chequers was, to borrow a phrase, highly aligned with the DD position.
Under this plan, the UK will not automatically take every new EU rule. Just as importantly, the UK will demand the power to diverge from EU rules. It will, under the Chequers proposal, not have to ask in advance before doing this. Rather, both sides will be able to take the other to an independent dispute resolution panel if they feel there is an attempt to garner an unfair advantage by cutting regulation.
Crucially, the Brexiteers feel that they have ensured that the hands of future UK governments aren’t bound. It might not be right economically to diverge too much from EU rules right now in certain sectors, but the Chequers proposal would not stop future governments from doing so when the time is right.
But if divergence ‘won the day’, its victory won’t be instant. Those in the Cabinet who want to maintain the closest possible ties with the EU take comfort from the fact that the UK’s opening offer will be accompanied by a declaration that this country intends to maintain high European-style standards after Brexit. They also believe that parliament will only choose to change the law so the UK diverges from EU rules and regulations if it is economically worth it; and they think those cases will be rare.
It is also worth remembering that the inner Cabinet were only agreeing the opening position in what is bound to be a ling and drawn out negotiation. I understand that Philip Hammond warned that this kind of deal would be extremely difficult to negotiate. Donald Tusk’s response that the UK’s position appears to be based on ‘pure illusion’ shows how hard it will be to get Brussels to think seriously about this offer.
Obviously, it would have been better if the government had had this discussion on its negotiating position months ago. Theresa May has not left herself much time to sell this position before next month’s key EU meetings. But there is, at least, a British position to sell now.