The secret of my 45-year-marriage? We don’t talk politics… my wife says it’s for madmen: Brexit Secretary David Davis takes a break from battling Brussels to give his most intimate ever interview
Each week, Brexit Secretary David Davis travels thousands of miles to do battle with EU bureaucrats. So few would expect him to find time in his frantic schedule for a small, pioneering school for children with special needs.
‘There needs to be a lot more emphasis on what a child can do, instead of what they cannot do,’ is the motto of the Middletown Centre for Autism in Co Armagh, Northern Ireland.
That inspirational message is one Davis remembers when the going gets tough in his EU negotiations. ‘There needs to be a lot more emphasis on what this country can do instead of what we can’t do,’ he says.
When we meet in his small office at 9 Downing Street, he is just back from Northern Ireland.
David Davis has always guarded the privacy of his family. Married to Doreen for 45 years (pictured together), he says only that the Davis clan is very close, and his office is filled with photographs of them
The border issue with the South is proving to be one of the most intractable sticking points with his EU counterparts.
‘It has taken up a lot of time but the people I met on the border say it can be done, they want it to work,’ he says.
It was after those meetings that he went to the autism centre, which is jointly funded by the Northern Ireland and Irish governments.
So why was he there?
He produces his mobile phone and proudly shows us the screensaver — a picture of an adorable, curly-haired little girl in a floral dress. ‘That’s my granddaughter, Chloe,’ he says. ‘I never normally talk about my family. But isn’t she beautiful?’
Chloe is also disabled, hence grandad’s interest in the Middletown Centre. But true to form, Davis, a father of three grown-up children — Rebecca, Sarah and Alexander — and a grandfather of five, aged between one and 16, declines to be drawn further about Chloe’s condition.
‘We all love her very much,’ he says simply.
During the Easter break, the former SAS reservist took some of the grandchildren, who came to stay in his Yorkshire constituency home, on a typical Davis idea of a fun weekend: camping, kayaking, hiking and mountaineering.
Was Chloe with them? A flicker of sadness comes into his eyes. ‘No. Not this trip.’
Davis has always guarded the privacy of his family. Married to Doreen for 45 years, he says only that the Davis clan is very close, and his office is filled with photographs of them.
Asked if there are any Remainers in his family, he laughs: ‘I wouldn’t dream of asking them. We don’t talk politics at home. Doreen thinks politics is for madmen.’ Davis is pictured in 1983, as a newly elected MP, with his wife and daughters, Rebecca and Sarah
And the secret of his long and happy marriage? ‘There is a divide. When I go home there is no talk of politics. That’s family time.’
One wonders if the absence of his own father in his life is why family matters so much to Davis, and why he is so protective of them.
Born to a single mother in York in 1948, he was mostly raised on a South London council estate by his mum, Betty Brown, and stepfather, Ronald.
He did eventually track down his birth father, who came from South Wales and was by then a civil servant, but they met just once and there was no happy-ever-after conclusion.
Asked if there are any Remainers in his family, he laughs: ‘I wouldn’t dream of asking them. We don’t talk politics at home. Doreen thinks politics is for madmen.’
However, he adds that Doreen ‘broke cover’ last weekend. ‘Someone on the radio was going on about Britain remaining in the customs union.
‘She said indignantly: ‘‘What? What do you think the people have voted for?’’ It’s the first political thing she has said for months.’
The question of whether Britain stays in the customs union — which would prevent the Government negotiating new trade deals with the rest of the world — is also causing serious tensions in the Cabinet, not least with Chancellor Philip Hammond.
Theresa May is under pressure from Tory rebels to agree to a so-called ‘customs partnership’ under which the Government would collect EU tariffs on goods that pass through the UK. Brexiteers led by MP Jacob Rees-Mogg have described the proposal as ‘cretinous’, a bureaucratic minefield that is utterly unworkable.
But a handful of those rebels who have never been reconciled to the EU referendum result are planning to join forces with Labour and the Lib Dems next month to defeat the Government in the Commons on the customs union — even though it could bring down the Prime Minister.
When he is asked about the potency of this threat, Davis leans forward with a steely glint in his eyes, and says: ‘Let me make it very plain. We are leaving the customs union. We have to leave it. It’s what the people asked for.’
He leaves us in no doubt that he sees his role as not just representing the Government.
‘The people have spoken. They rejected the downbeat view of Project Fear. I have 17.5 million bosses — the ones who voted for Brexit. There is no question that leaving the customs union was a condition of Brexit.’
In a pointed warning to the rebels, who include the Europhile veteran Tory Ken Clarke, he says: ‘In our manifesto we said unequivocally that we will leave the single market and the customs union. The Conservative Parliamentary Party was elected on that manifesto.’
Nearly two years after the referendum, Davis says that EU governments have, grudgingly, conceded that Britain is leaving. ‘We will undoubtedly see some manoeuvring but they have accepted it’
But what of Philip Hammond, an unrepentant Remoaner?
Exasperated, Davis says: ‘Look, it’s the Cabinet view. The Prime Minister has confirmed it. Even the Chancellor has said it in “terms”. . .’ What Davis means is that Hammond, albeit reluctantly, has publicly ‘signed up’ to leaving the customs union.
After 21 months as Brexit Secretary — he has been to 17 countries so far this year, from Greece to Sweden — Davis is looking remarkably perky, and certainly much healthier than when he appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show earlier this month.
Then, he was so ill with a stomach virus that the show’s producers had a bucket strategically positioned beside his chair.
A strapping six-footer, he looks younger than his 69 years, though he concedes that his grey hair has become greyer. He remains fanatical about his fitness but has had to curtail his regimen of running ten miles on alternate days. ‘I don’t have the time,’ he shrugs.
In between travelling, he splits his week between London and his constituency of Haltemprice and Howden in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where, he says, he manages to run three miles a day. However, mindful that his opportunities for exercise have shrunk, the sugar in his tea has been replaced by sweeteners.
Apart from the family snaps and biographies of Winston Churchill on the bookshelves, Davis’s office is spartan. Many thought he would opt for a grander office, as befits his status as one of the most senior Cabinet ministers, but he likes the proximity to the Prime Minister.
A door from Number 9 connects to his neighbour — the same door, incidentally, that was locked to keep out Sir Humphrey Appleby, the head of the Civil Service, in a memorable episode of Yes, Prime Minister entitled The Key.
But Davis doesn’t use it. ‘It’s quicker to walk up the street if I need to borrow a cup of sugar from the PM,’ he laughs.
As we were being ushered into his office, Frances O’Grady, the first woman general secretary of the TUC, was leaving.
Indeed, at Davis’s insistence and in a move that astounded many, O’Grady — a Labour supporter who voted Remain — was the first person he saw when he took on the Brexit brief.
‘I saw her first for two reasons,’ says Davis, who worked for Tate & Lyle for 17 years before entering politics. ‘Firstly, a fear that Brexit was going to be all about taking workers’ rights away, which is not true.
‘Secondly, who voted for Brexit more than anyone else? The British industrial working class in the Midlands and the North. They deserve to know I am going to look after their jobs and rights.’
If only he could make the same pledge to Britain’s fishermen, who fear the worst. A leaked White Paper has suggested that the quota regime, which enables Spanish fishermen to plunder British waters, will not be significantly reformed after Brexit.
So is he selling out this country’s fishing industry?
‘No. But during the implementation period we can’t pick and choose. We don’t have time for that. I can understand why the fishermen are nervous. Back in the era of Edward Heath [the PM who took us into Europe in 1973] their interests were not served well,’ he says.
‘I give them a promise — we are not going to do that. After the implementation period we will control our own waters. We will start that discussion while we are still in transition.’
When David Davis — to the surprise of many — was elevated to the Cabinet as Brexit Secretary after languishing on the backbenches for eight years, some questioned whether he was up to the job.
His detractors, many of them supporters of David Cameron, against whom Davis ran for the party leadership in 2005, whispered that he was too lazy and not that bright.
The smearing and sneering by the former PM’s coterie was always more about class than competence. How could a lad from a rough council estate in Tooting compete with the pedigree of Cameron’s lot? He didn’t even go to Oxbridge!
Yet Davis, who progressed from the local grammar school to Warwick University and then on to Harvard, has long demonstrated a sharp intelligence and abundance of common sense which is now invaluable.
Elected to the Commons in 1987, he learnt the art of diplomacy as Europe minister under John Major when there were just 14 member states of the EU, rather than the 28 there are today. Michel Barnier, now the chief EU negotiator on Brexit, was France’s minister for Europe and the two enjoyed many encounters.
‘We’re friendly without being friends. But we have known each other since those days,’ says Davis.
‘I believe in old-fashioned diplomacy,’ he adds. ‘Real diplomacy actually works. It starts with basic courtesies.
‘Really good negotiators find what is best for both sides and strike the deal in that area. It’s about understanding what the other side wants as well as your own.’
However, he concedes that it’s often an uphill task: ‘Imagine going clothes shopping and 27 other people have to agree what you’re going to wear.’
As for the EU as a whole, he believes that ‘every single member would be happier if we weren’t leaving — and for different reasons. The European Union was created out of dictatorship, defeat and war, and a wish to prevent it happening again.
‘Spain came in after Franco, the Greeks after the Colonels, the Eastern Europeans came in after the Soviet jackboots. For them, Europe is about modernity, democracy, the rule of law and a decent life. We joined after 150 years of the most successful liberal democracy in the world.’
However, nearly two years after the referendum, he says that EU governments have, grudgingly, conceded that Britain is leaving. ‘We will undoubtedly see some manoeuvring but they have accepted it.’
Unlike the Remainers in Parliament, who are determined next month to force a cliffhanger Commons vote on the customs union.
‘They argue it’s not in Britain’s economic interest to leave. Yet in 1999 some 60 per cent of our business was with Europe, 40 per cent with the rest of the world.
‘Every year since then it has switched by around 1 per cent. At the end of this decade it will be the other way round. Even the European Commission accepts that 90 per cent of growth is now outside the EU. Trade in the rest of the world is growing like topsy.’
Asked how Britain will look post-Brexit, he smiles and says: ‘Even more fashionable, even more cosmopolitan.
‘We speak English, we have the English legal system, English is the language of the internet, medicine, engineering, the financial industry, science and the media.
‘We have the highest employment ever, the lowest unemployment in my adult life. We have nothing to fear. In 20 years’ time, when we look back, no one will remember the implementation period.’
As a result of his high profile, Davis has earned the dubious privilege of being lampooned as the enthusiastic but misguided ‘Brexit Bulldog’ in the Radio 4 satire Dead Ringers.
‘I haven’t heard it, nor has Doreen. But I admit I am flattered. Who wouldn’t be?
He thinks he is difficult to satirise because he’s ‘so ordinary’.
That is not a view shared by his friends or foes. And there is nothing ordinary about Davis’s determination to deliver the Brexit that Britain voted for.
And after Brexit, the issue that Tory MPs talk about most is who will be the successor to Mrs May. Does he still harbour leadership ambitions?
He dismisses the question with a typical burst of laughter.
So is his current political role his last big job? ‘That’s a question for the Prime Minister,’ he says.
What if Mrs May fell under a double-decker bus?
‘The bus wouldn’t dare,’ he says — a clever reply that leaves the distinct impression that he might, just might, run.
For now, though, if proximity is power, then Davis’s office at 9 Downing Street is a reminder to everyone of exactly who is wearing the Brexit boots in this Government.
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