David Davis

He had promised “the battle of the summer”, yet the argument-which-never-was ended seven minutes after it had started with a technical knockout. Before heading off to Brussels for the first round of Brexit talks, David Davis (68) had promised to make the European see reason and conduct parallel negotiations on both the UK’s exit from the union and its future relationship with the bloc.

EU negotiator Michel Barnier was having none of this and doggedly stuck to his initial position – first agree on the terms of the divorce and only then talk about custody arrangements. A few hours after his arrival in Brussels, Mr David – secretary of state for Exiting the European Union – was already on his way back to London, leaving his reportedly inexperienced and ill-prepared team to fend for itself.

A hands-off kind of guy with the reputation of a streetfighter – not afraid to employ the political equivalents of knuckledusters and Birmingham-style peaky blinders – David Davis has grown into the job, toning down the rhetoric a few notches, embracing a modicum of reason, and doing his homework.

In the hectic days following his appointment, Mr Davis caused wide consternation by publicly failing to grasp the difference between common market and customs union. He also experienced difficulty in distinguishing the European Council from the European Commission. Mr Davis also didn’t score any points when he stated, rather rashly, that he’d be touring European capitals to negotiate an advantageous deal for his country by negotiating with two individual member states – playing out one against the other – rather than sitting down with the commission – the bloc’s executive organ.

Nothing of the sort came to pass and Mr Davis was quickly brought up to speed on all matters European. However, Mr Davis is still reluctant to stay in Brussels any longer than civility demands. He doesn’t get on particularly well with EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier – the two have clashed frequently – driving the rather stiff and formal Frenchman repeatedly to despair over his ill-disguised disdain for detail and procedure. Though mostly unfolding behind closed doors, this friction has caused significant delays. Mr Barnier, visibly exasperated, accused his British counterpart of not being prepared to deal with the minutiae of the exit proceedings.

Saddled with the near-impossible, and certainly thankless, task of ushering the UK out of the European construct without sustaining too much damage, Mr Davis was brought back from retirement for a last hurray. A former home secretary and chairman of the Conservative Party, David Davis proved a natural fit to the forwards-thinking cabinet Prime Minister Theresa May tried to form as she moved into power last year.

Though that cabinet failed to materialise, Mr Davis has spent his entire political life in the slightly less conservative wing of the Tory party. A libertarian at heart, he vehemently opposed plans to introduce identity cards, though he did voice support for the reintroduction of the death penalty – a big no-no in the European Union which demands that its member states ban capital punishment, no exceptions allowed. More plausibly, Mr Davis has campaigned extensively on civil liberty issues, battling government overreach and praising the European Court of Justice for its hard line stance on the preservation of privacy vis-à-vis big data.

Mr Davis also repeatedly drew attention to the UK’s complicity in the extraordinary renditions programme maintained by the US government at the height of its fight against faith-inspired terror – i.e. the outsourcing of torture – and attempts to silence its victims.

A thoroughly decent and frank politician, and now the UK’s trouble shooter-in-chief, Mr Davis is slowly being side lined as negotiations in Brussels stall and Prime Minister May searches for ways to avoid a total breakdown. Mr Davis’ present troubles are, paradoxically, of his own making – though he is not to blame: gaining a degree of appreciation for the EU and its uses he did not have before, Mr Davis shows signs of backing away from the head-on collision he advocated initially. That makes him a traitor to the increasingly vociferous grouping of hard core Brexit Tories who will not hesitate to pounce at the first sign of reasoned compromise. Displaying common sense does not increase David Davis’ job security.

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