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Sunday 19 May 2019

defeated by brexit • part iv

May’s indecision

  • The prime minister could not decide whether Britain should be in or out of the customs union
  • A general election dramatically weakened her position
  • But she did not trust her cabinet – even ministers who supported her after the election

By Chris Cook

In October 2016  Theresa May gave two speeches to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham.

In one of them, she said of Brexit: “I want it to give British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within the single market – and let European businesses do the same here.

“But let’s state one thing loud and clear: we are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration all over again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That’s not going to happen.”

In the other, May spelled out that the UK expected to have an independent trade policy.

“Countries including Canada, China, India, Mexico, Singapore and South Korea have already told us they would welcome talks on future free trade agreements… Let’s have the confidence in ourselves to go out into the world, securing trade deals, winning contracts, generating wealth and creating jobs.”

The speech was warmly welcomed in the hall.

Members of the cabinet, including Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd, applaud Theresa May’s 2016 conference speech

Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s permanent representative in Brussels, saw her shortly afterwards. The speech had shocked people in Brussels. It had set out a path to what was then considered a “hard” Brexit – taking the UK far outside the institutions. It also set out a timetable for when it would send formal notification of leaving.

But there was something in the speech for the UK’s man on the ground in Brussels to welcome: “You’ve made a decision,” he said. “This gives me clarity. I can work with this. We’re leaving the customs union.”

The prime minister was appalled: “I have agreed to no such thing”.

At this point the prime minister’s vision for Brexit had two clear red lines: British laws must be made in the UK and judged by British judges without recourse to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and freedom of movement must end.

She believed both  were demanded by the referendum, and that taken together they would mean that the “four freedoms” were gone. The UK, a services hub, would lose its privileged access to the EU on services.

Britain accepted that leaving the single market would have consequences. On the face of it, the UK looked to be giving up on the City’s privileged access that comes from EU membership.

Beyond that, though, what? A UK negotiator told me: “That was a time when you really should have been saying, ‘Okay, let’s bank these big decisions in government in Parliament and nail them down. So then we [would] have a strategy that people have bought into’.” But no one knew what the strategy was.

Instead of crafting one, May became frustrated with advisers and ministers who claimed to accept the referendum, but wanted nothing to change in their areas of expertise.

A close aide said: “She used to get really arsey with officials and ministers and so on… [who said]: ‘you have got to respect the result but this bit of membership is really important’. She used to say: ‘No, no. Leaving means leaving the EU. We’re totally out, but we will negotiate something that is close’.”

Theresa May with cabinet colleagues and officials, including Liam Fox (second left); Jeremy Heywood (third left) and David Davis (fifth left)

The internal dynamics of Downing Street at this time are a maze of factions, some of whom made their views known readily within the building and to the press. On one side were the cabinet Brexiters – David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox.

A senior member of May’s team said of them: “There was a kind of feeling of invincibility which slightly powered the view that we really could get this. But with absolutely no evidence. And people used to tell themselves stuff without actually knowing what they’re talking about.”

Stuff like: “‘Of course Angela Merkel is very keen to have a deal, a good deal. They’re very keen for us because of ballast against France’.” This sort of view was “informed by zero understanding of Angela Merkel. They just kind of assumed it, because, you know, ‘she’s a good sort. And she’s Christian Democrat. And they like the British’.”

This bloc was supported by a rotating cast of Leavers, including members of the European Research Group (ERG), the caucus of pro-Brexit Tory MPs now led by Jacob Rees-Mogg. ERG people were constantly in Downing Street, meeting officials, advisers and the prime minister, recalled Chris Wilkins, her strategy director.

Philip Hammond and Greg Clark headed the so-called Remainer faction in the cabinet

Opposing them were so-called Remainer cabinet members seeking the minimum disruption possible. Philip Hammond and Greg Clark – the chancellor and business secretary – were their core, but they were joined by Amber Rudd, then home secretary, and David Mundell, the Scottish secretary.

A factional cabinet was a leaky cabinet, so the information flow to cabinet committees was cut back as far as possible.

One former official told me: “Papers were only submitted in hard copy to a list of those considered to have a need to know. It meant in some cases nobody in departments could find a copy of what had actually been agreed.”

The main forum for Downing Street strategy formation ceased to be the cabinet. The only meeting that mattered, Wilkins said, was on Wednesday afternoon in the prime minister’s study. He got himself invited with ten to a dozen others.

Habitual attenders included Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s fearsome chiefs of staff, and their deputy, JoJo Penn. Some civil servants came too: Sir Ivan Rogers, Olly Robbins and Simon Case, her civil service principal private secretary. Her Europe advisers, Peter Storr and Denzil Davidson, came too. Cabinet members, including David Davis, the Brexit secretary, did not.

This group exerted enormous control over the government agenda, not least by “locking in” policies in the wording of May’s speeches – which became focal points for how the government presented its case.

Working via speeches, rather than white papers or draft treaty text, allowed cabinet rifts to be disguised. Speeches do not need to be actionable. Fault lines can be hidden in the rhetoric.

The cabinet was consulted only shortly before Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech

Ahead of one speech, at Lancaster House in January 2017, the cabinet was consulted. But not much ahead of time.

Wilkins says the document “got sent around to the cabinet in brown envelopes… the day before it was going to be delivered. And they all scribbled their comments on them in manuscript form, and they came back and then we worked through them and decided, well, which of those are you going to accept and not?”

Lancaster House is a grand neo-classical villa just off Pall Mall, used mainly by the Foreign Office for press conferences and bold statements about Britain and the world. It was where May was supposed to choose between an arm’s length relationship with Europe and a close one. Specifically, she needed to decide whether to keep Britain in the EU’s customs union.

She chose not to decide.

Whether the UK would be in a customs union with the EU needed a rapid answer, because it was fundamental to all that followed.

In July 2016, a month after the referendum, Raoul Ruparel, now one of the prime minister’s advisers, wrote: “It is concerning that, at this stage, the UK government seems to still be debating the most basic tenets of Brexit when the time is upon us to be drafting a detailed approach.”

A customs union is an agreement that two states will not charge tariffs on goods passing from one to another and will aim to maintain the same external tariffs on goods entering the union from outside.

This has important effects.

Border Force staff check a lorry arriving at Portsmouth

Under a normal free trade agreement, such as the one between the EU and Korea, goods attract lower tariffs only if enough of their value comes from Europe or Korea. Cars, for example, must be 55 per cent EU-made to qualify. Exporters must prove that they have enough local content in the product. This is the so-called “Rules of Origin” process.

Under a customs union, all products pay zero tariffs, even if they are much less than, say, 55 per cent homemade. So exporters do not need to comply with the tiresome Rules of Origin process – and dropping these requirements definitely helps make more frictionless borders.

Early on, it was clear that Britain could not stay in the single market if it was serious about ending ECJ oversight. But staying in a customs union would cut costs associated with crossing borders and make it easier for UK goods to be tariff-free. Treasury officials still agitated for something closer, but joining a customs union was the closest relationship consistent with the red lines on the ECJ and free movement.

At this early stage, if the prime minister were to announce that Britain would definitely be outside a customs union, she risked upsetting her chancellor, her business secretary – and companies such as Nissan. In late 2016 the Japanese car maker had raised concerns about the danger that border friction would pose to its business model.

But if the prime minister were to say Britain would definitely stay inside a customs union, it would cause chaos with Brexiters.

If Britain joined a customs union, it would limit its ability to agree trade deals with third parties, since it could not negotiate tariff reductions, a major bargaining chip in any talks. Many Brexiters believed trade agreements with new states were part of the point of Brexit. Ahead of Article 50 being triggered, Liam Fox, the trade secretary, and his ministers had toured the world, talking about trade in ways that joining a customs union would rule out.

May did not want to choose. Early on she became enraged that officials kept advising her that Britain had to make this choice – in or out of a customs union. On that topic, in particular, she used to shout at officials: “Stop bringing me binary choices. This is not going to be a binary choice”. In late 2016, the  Civil Service bent to her will.

It made the first of many attempts to create something neither in the customs union nor out. The “hybrid” model was born.

Civil servants are supposed to be expert at rephrasing choices so ministers are happy even if the reality has not altered, but this desire to avoid hard choices was causing exasperation. Bluntly, you cannot be half inside a customs union. You are in or you are out. Why would the EU allow a halfway house that permitted the UK full access to its market – and to be a backdoor to other countries?

In private Heywood was troubled by this decision avoidance. He worried that pursuing the hybrid was simply letting the prime minister delay making hard choices.

At the same time he facilitated the process. He defended the idea of exploring the hybrid in arguments with Rogers in late 2016, and cemented his reputation as a “user-friendly” official known at the pinnacle of government for his skill at manoeuvring through apparently intractable problems for a range of politicians.

Other officials were not getting along with ministers quite so easily.

Around this time, Olly Robbins was starting to cause exasperation. Downing Street officials say that papers from him to the prime minister would appear late – shortly before the deadline for May’s “box closing”, or even after it.

Olly Robbins made a habit of sending his papers late so others could not review them

This is when the prime minister is given her reading for the evening. By sending papers late, Robbins ensured that the prime minister’s advisers were unable to review them or test his recommendations on others.

His advice, therefore, often went in unadulterated – unlike that of Rogers, who was continually sending messages back to the centre that were regarded as unduly pessimistic – and annotated as such. One of May’s inner circle said: “I literally don’t remember a single constructive suggestion.” Another said: “To be fair, he turned out to be right.”

Rogers was widely regarded as an unparalleled expert on the EU in the right post, but had a reputation for being “Eeyorish”. He was described by Heywood as “a man who likes to admire a problem”, and he had difficulty getting on with Number Ten.

A May confidant said: “She has an MO, which is she trusts very few people. And if you’re very close to her, she will receive advice from you. Sometimes robustly, but you have to be careful how often you give it. But what she will not put up with is Ivan Rogers coming in and saying: ‘Well, the thing is, you know, I know these people and you’re just wrong’.”

One of May’s advisers told me: “Theresa May didn’t mind challenge but only up to a point and [she] trusted fellow believers more than officials.”

Rogers’ position was not helped by Robbins, whose desire to be the central source of advice on Brexit meant that he would not support him inside Downing Street. One former senior official said: “Olly was desperate to get rid of Ivan”.

In a memo, Sir Ivan Rogers warned Brexit talks might take a decade – and still fail

Rogers wrote a memo to the prime minister in October 2016 in which he warned bleakly about how talks with the EU might take a decade – and still fail. The document made its way to the BBC in mid-December.

Rogers felt he was being undermined from inside the government and on January 4 he resigned. He was replaced by Sir Tim Barrow – an experienced conventional diplomat, albeit without Rogers’ technocratic bent or depth of European experience.

A few weeks later the prime minister gave her Lancaster House speech. The lines on the European Court of Justice stayed. The line on immigration too. She added that “we will not be required to contribute huge sums to the EU budget”.

On the Customs Union, she stated: “A global Britain must be free to strike trade agreements with countries from outside the European Union too.”

But she went on: “I also want tariff-free trade with Europe and cross-border trade there to be as frictionless as possible.”

She floated the idea of some halfway house. Can we have the advantages of a customs union, but not the downside?

“I do want us to have a customs agreement with the EU. Whether that means we must reach a completely new customs agreement, become an associate member of the customs union in some way, or remain a signatory to some elements of it, I hold no preconceived position. I have an open mind on how we do it. It is not the means that matter, but the ends.”

The decision of October on the customs union, welcomed by Rogers, was unmade. There was a lot of fuzzy wording in the months to come about whether Britain would be in or out. But to focus on that was to miss the point. The prime minister had decided the hybrid was now policy.

The negotiations

On 29 March 2017 Sir Tim Barrow delivered a letter from the prime minister to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council. It was official notification that Britain was triggering Article 50. Britain’s two-year countdown to departure had begun.

Britain’s ambassador to the EU, Sir Tim Barrow, delivers formal notice of the UK’s intention to leave to Donald Tusk

This had not been wholly smooth; the government lost a court case – the Gina Miller case – saying that the government would have to pass a bill through Parliament giving the executive power to trigger Article 50. It was hoped by Remainers this would put Parliament, with its pro-EU majority, centre stage. Not yet, it didn’t. MPs voted the Article 50 bill through.

In October 2016, the EU set up “Task Force 50”, a group of officials whose job was negotiating the UK’s departure. The final team had a titular head in Michel Barnier, a French conservative politician of slightly haughty bearing. His nominal deputy was Sabine Weyand, a longstanding EU official and a fairly hard-bitten EU trade official.

These officials were in close contact with the EU’s 27 other members, the Irish in particular.

A few days after the Article 50 notification, the European Council distributed draft position papers – finalised into negotiating guidelines – at a meeting in late April.

Michel Barnier’s deputy, Sabine Weyand, is a hard-bitten EU official

Ireland was a big part of them: “The Union has consistently supported the goal of peace and reconciliation enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, and continuing to support and protect the achievements, benefits and commitments of the Peace Process will remain of paramount importance.”

But the EU also needed to defend itself against British goods that might not meet European standards or need to pay tariffs? This is the border problem: how do you stop goods leaking into the EU from Britain without creating a barrier that could undermine the peace?

The EU feared Britain and Ireland might start talking to each other in a way that broke the rule against “pre-negotiations”.

There was discussion early on, from the Irish agriculture ministry, of a special bilateral deal between the UK and Ireland. Britain was keen on any such signal – a negotiation between big Britain and little Ireland. As one official put it: “…DExEU and Heywood all believed we could handle this bilaterally and beat the Irish up. Usual ‘big member state’ attitude.”

A Brexit campaign poster on the Irish border

But this was a dead end. The politicians “forgot that we were about to cease to be a member state, and that the solidarity for Dublin would consequently be very strong.”

Besides, a side-deal would be illegal under EU law, the union’s agriculture commissioner told Tony Connelly, author of Brexit and Ireland. Barnier made the same point to David Davis and Dublin: do not try to go behind our backs.

He need not have worried.

In January 2017, Theresa May flew to Dublin, a few weeks after the Lancaster House speech, to meet the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny.

May had a big request: she wanted officials of both governments to work together on finding a way to make the Irish border seamless and frictionless even if the two countries were in separate customs and regulatory zones.

She wanted them to consider increasing the amount of “facilitation” to make its regulatory processes easier on businesses. On border issues, the dream of facilitation is that, with clever use of technology, people could operate across the border without anyone really noticing, even if there is regulatory divergence between the UK and EU.

The Taoiseach Enda Kenny ruled out technology as a solution to the border problem

At its simplest, lorry drivers who routinely cross the border with a tanker of milk, say, could use an app to notify customs authorities of their cargo, so they could cross and never need stop. More complex schemes that have evolved since involved drones, blockchain, weighing stations and micro-chipped produce.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Irish Revenue Commissioners (IRC) already had regular meetings to discuss topics of common interest. Since the referendum, these had included an item on Brexit.

Fiona Hill had already pressed Heywood to invest heavily in research into border technology (“spaff some money on some geeks”, in her phrase) to make sure a workable solution could be found.

May’s request was that this should all be stepped up into something more. It did not go well.

Reports coming back to London said that Kenny, a genial, cheery man, was “very aggressive” by his own upbeat standards (an Irish diplomat said “we would say ‘direct’”). His response was unequivocal: No.

Officials at the meeting told me it was made quite clear to May that technology was not the answer to the northern border. How will this work, Kenny asked, “if you’re outside the customs union and you’re outside the single market..? You can’t solve this without the customs union.”

Sir Jeremy Heywood

This is the moment, British officials say, when Irish officials dropped any work on using technology to ease these problems. Word seems to have been passed down the chain to kill off any work in IRC. Commission officials say the same: there was a clear view, passed from Dublin to the EU that a customs union must be part of the answer, for Northern Ireland at least.

Kenny’s message was also sent in public a few weeks later, albeit more cryptically. He said: “The Irish Government will oppose a hard border, argue for free movement on this island, seek EU funding for cross-border projects and protect the rights of EU citizens, whether from North or South. We must not return to a hard border or create a new border of the future… This is a political matter, not a legal or technical matter.

So much for facilitation.

For the first ten months of her premiership, May had a working majority of 17 seats in the House of Commons. On 18 April 2017, she announced a snap general election to strengthen her hand. The ambition, she told other European leaders, was to give her more freedom to negotiate.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party denied the Tories an overall majority in the 20127 election

The two-year clock on Article 50 was already running. The election meant a two-month delay to the start of Brexit negotiations. And it was a disaster.

May was wooden on the stump and mixed in her messages. Her manifesto was an uneasy mix of communitarianism and the harder-edged right. A Tory campaign that started with double-digit poll leads ended in a hung parliament. She lost her majority.

The Tories had to turn to an unusual partner to prop up their government: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a Northern Irish party who ended the election with 10 MPs.

The DUP pledged a “confidence and supply” arrangement to keep May in power. They promised her their votes in return for a billion pounds more spending in Northern Ireland over two years. They could have had more: Gavin Williamson, then the chief whip, had proposed a coalition, giving DUP MPs ministerial posts. There was talk of a “policy board” – a joint policy-making process.

Gavin Williamson offered the DUP a full coalition

The DUP is the most hardline of the two major unionist parties in Northern Ireland. They opposed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and have long made a political living out of a perceived unwillingness to compromise – albeit one that has become rather exaggerated in the telling.

A DUP presence in government would always be awkward. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the British government must exercise power in Northern Ireland “with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions”. Coalition with the DUP is not ideal.

After the election the Irish government could see that the Tories had to find enough votes to form an administration. But they could also see a government that had already seemed insensitive to Ireland taking further steps away from that duty to impartiality.

The DUP’s entry to near-government came at a bad moment in any case.

In January 2017, the devolved government in Northern Ireland collapsed. Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister, resigned. Under the rules on so-called “power-sharing”, which requires cross-community participation in government, this ended the administration. There was an election, but neither side was willing to move and the Northern Ireland assembly was closed.

The DUP must take the lion’s share of the blame for the end of power-sharing. Its leader Arlene Foster’s astonishing and expensive maladministration of a renewable heating scheme – the proximate cause of the collapse – is now the subject of a public inquiry. But the closure of the assembly amplified the DUP’s voice.

The DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds and leader Arlene Foster. The party won 35 per cent of the Northern Ireland vote in 2017

The only serious cross-community party in Northern Ireland – the Alliance – has no Westminster MPs, only members at the devolved Stormont assembly. Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist party, always wins seats in the House of Commons but refuses to take them on principle. So the closure of the assembly shut out those two parties from their main platforms. The full spectrum of Northern Irish voices was not heard there.

Northern Ireland had non-DUP voices in the Commons but, in the general election, they lost their seats to Sinn Fein, who would never use them, or the DUP who definitely did.

So between January and June of 2017, the political representation of Northern Ireland was transformed. With the exception of one independent MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, the DUP was now the only party with a voice in national politics.

A majority in Northern Ireland had voted against Brexit. But a pro-Brexit party which won 35 per cent of the vote in 2017 was the only Northern Irish voice heard in London. Indeed, it was as much in government as it wanted.

The votes of that party, which had opposed the Good Friday Agreement, was needed to keep the British government going.

Theresa May meets Enda Kenny in Dublin

The relationship between David Davis and Olly Robbins was by now strained beyond breaking point. One cabinet minister recalled a meeting where Davis was presented with a document, ostensibly from his own department, which he “clearly had not seen before”.

Before the election, Davis asked for Robbins to be moved. He was rebuffed. Afterwards, Davis had more power. He made the request again and Robbins was moved from DExEU. From now on Robbins would only be the sherpa.

This move was sensible, but cemented the fact that the negotiation would be run from Downing Street. The problems were not resolved.

In April, the European Council had proposed that the Article 50 negotiations should be sequenced. It drew up a list of things resolved before any others, which included three big items:

  • The bill owed by the UK for EU projects that had been committed to with the British budget contribution
  • The rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU
  • The Irish border

Only after the European Council had deemed that “sufficient progress” had been made on the initial topics could Britain begin a negotiation about the future relationship. The phasing would be an enormous advantage to the EU and a political problem for May: it would force her to accept pain on those issues without opening up any areas where she might score some wins.

It also prevented the UK bringing in topics where it might have some bargaining strength: defence and security, for example.

There would have to be concessions on the things the EU really cared about – Ireland, money, citizens rights. And if Britain resisted? Tick tock, tick tock. The combination of phased negotiation and a loudly ticking clock was a dismal dynamic for the UK.

Davis saw the trap. He said he was determined to fight it. It was, he said, going to be the “row of the summer” in 2017. But he turned up in Brussels and immediately conceded.

Greg Clark, Philip Hammond and David Davis arrive for a Theresa May speech on Brexit in 2018

A lot had happened during the election campaign, a UK negotiator told me. Robbins, with the direct knowledge of the prime minister, had negotiated on the presumption that the UK would accept the EU’s terms.

The ticking clock was already working its magic. May did not feel strong enough to countenance talks breaking down immediately after the election, and certainly not over something so apparently banal as timetables. She undermined her Brexit secretary in doing so – but, as  one of her close confidants said, “she never really trusted him anyway”. Was it just Robbins? Another said: “There was ministerial control of this, it was just the PM.”

Accepting the sequencing, one negotiator told me, “fundamentally pushed everything in the future to the future. It limited the scope of what the Political Declaration was ever going to be, [and] it brought Northern Ireland into this strand of talks.”

Accepting the sequencing was a sign of a broader problem. The negotiator said the UK government, at both political and civil service levels, did a poor job on strategy, sequencing and structuring the negotiation.

May was not just weakened by the election. She was wounded. Despite the indignities of his position, one person who propped her up was Davis, who as a senior Brexiter had the credibility to vouch for her to parts of the party that might demand her head. But almost immediately after the election Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy resigned – forced out by cabinet ministers and Tory MPs as a price for the campaign disaster.

Without them, the prime minister was more completely in the hands of the Civil Service. Its officials are often derided for being Remainers and subverting Brexit, but it is better to understand their motives as a desire for orderliness. Their concern was to keep the talks rolling through to a managed conclusion. This meant that they were less willing to stand their ground on issues of separation than some anti-Brexit ministers.

The dynamics inside government also changed with the election. Hammond, assumed to be on his way out, stayed. So did Clark, the business secretary. Even Tom Scholar, permanent secretary at the Treasury and assumed to be vulnerable because the prime minister viscerally disliked him, kept his job. She did not have the personal authority to steamroller through her own choices.

The pressure on Downing Street from pro-Brexit MPs and the pro-Brexit press to keep going with the project was relentless.

But there was a quieter lobbying effort from businesses, notably car makers, for a close relationship and an extended transition: they did not want a cliff edge into any new relationship. They would go in to see officials in the business department once a month.

Cargo ships in Shanghai. Car makers did not want a trade cliff edge

The secretive negotiation process means they left with little information, but officials felt the pressure – and were rapidly making their case to the rest of government. Fact-sheets from Honda made their way into cabinet sub-committees about customs.

Business groups including the Institute of Directors, the Confederation of British Industry and the British Chambers of Commerce were all doing the same thing, pressing Clark and beating the drum for frictionless relations with the EU. The Treasury, quietly, still hoped for a deal that would save the City too.

Slowly, the pressure would start to tell. Whether the government would find the strength to choose was another matter.

In search of better options, Britain appeared to reach out to allies in Europe.

Non-member states negotiating with the EU deal with the European Commission as “third countries” – and the EU has decided that departing member states should be treated the same way. This was a strategic decision made to maintain solidarity during the Brexit process.

It took a while for this to sink in in London; this would not be one of those classic midnight deals, where 28 national leaders hammer out settlements. Instead, the member states agree position papers to fix what they want the Commission to do.

The European Council, composed of the heads of government, agrees the negotiation mandate for the commission. It may also pass verdicts on concessions or decisions. “Yes, this is good enough” or “No, we need more”. But the third country does not get to negotiate with member states directly.

This strengthens the EU’s hand. Commission negotiators can say: “Well, we would love to give you this. But we have to keep the member states happy”.

Third countries do try to get around this.

Lorry drivers on board a Dover to Calais ferry. Brexit means an uncertain future for the haulage industry

During the negotiations between the EU and US over the trade treaty known as TTIP, the US was continually trying to turn member states to its cause. US civil servants would throw events for them in capitals and in Brussels, aiming to pitch to them. A senior US Trade Representative official told me: “The Commission would ring us, and say ‘what are you doing?’. And we’d say ‘we’re a sovereign state. They’re sovereign states. We’re having a talk.’”

The UK, in those talks, was regarded as Europe’s weak link – most likely to be talked into helping the US. But as one British official involved in the TTIP negotiations put it: “The US failed”. Even the lure of the special relationship and the vast US marketplace could not break the EU’s internal solidarity.

Before the Brexit negotiations started, Britain tried the same thing. Davis was sent on a tour of European capitals. Before his appointment he had talked about the need for a negotiator to go to Berlin to cut a special deal. There was a strand of Brexit commentary that assumed German car makers or Italian wineries would lobby their governments for a good deal.

According to DExEU’s transparency releases, by the time of the Article 50 notification, Davis had been to 12 places. By the end, he had been to all but three member states. The strategy failed for a number of reasons.

First, the dynamics of the negotiation encouraged solidarity. The structure of the negotiation kept the focus on the exit bill, citizens rights and Ireland. On all these the EU members were in lock step.

Second, as another cabinet minister put it, Davis’s hosts did not take him entirely seriously: “David was always in a difficult position because quite a lot of European governments refused to talk to him at foreign minister level.” Boris Johnson was foreign secretary. Davis had no obvious equivalent.

David Davis with Michel Barnier. Theresa May wanted to sideline her Brexit secretary

Third, the plan was conducted out in the open. Newspapers were told what was going on. Barnier  himself was doing a tour of Europe to help maintain a united front. He had an ulterior motive; as a man who wanted to be European Commission president, building personal ties with national leaders was time well spent. He visited 42 locations in the EU as well as a huge barrage of meetings in Brussels. The Commission did not leave member states feeling unloved.

Fourth, Davis did not have much to sell. There was no clear pitch. There was confusion about whether the aim was to win friends or undermine the Commission. And Davis could not tell his opposite numbers what Britain wanted on the customs union. In at least one case this antagonised the people he met: “I asked what Britain wanted. I got an explanation of the internal dynamics of the UK Tory Party.”

An official in DExEU told me: “The UK has always seen the EU through an economic lens, like no one else. The Brexit vote was a political event for member states; the economics was secondary. So DD went and launched into a lot of minutiae about German car exports or Italian wine exports. And his pitch fell on deaf ears because, one, it’s not the economy, stupid; two medium and small member states hadn’t even begun to think about the economic impact and, three, when they did, they realised that the numbers weren’t that bad.”

Greg Clark, Theresa May and Philip Hammond. The internal dynamics of the Tory party took centre stage

So what was the purpose of Davis’s travels? DExEU and Downing Street officials certainly expected some fracturing of the EU27’s unity, but officials with direct knowledge of the arrangement have told me that the true point was to keep Davis away from Brussels, where Robbins’s team was working. It was a strategy agreed by Robbins and the prime minister. It was not meant to affect anything.

It was meant to sideline Davis.

May had failed in her snap election to build consensus in the country. She was now also not holding together her own cabinet. There was still no plan. All she knew was that people in her own cabinet who held strong views should be kept at arm’s length.

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