David Davis, Britain’s Brexit street fighter

This time David Davis cannot afford to mess it up. The man who blew his chance to lead the Conservative party and then threw away a prospective cabinet career finds himself entrusted with the most sensitive political task in a generation: delivering Brexit. The cliff edge that has always seemed to fascinate him lies ahead.

Mr Davis has waited a long time for this chance. At the age of 68, a politician whose time appeared to have passed now holds Britain’s economic and political future in his hands. But this time, to the surprise of some, the Brexit secretary seems determined not to squander his shot at history.

This week, in a BBC debate on Brexit, he exuded his trademark breezy confidence. Leaning back in his chair, tie askew, he casually dropped in references to his friend “Michel”, the stiff former French foreign minister and chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier. One Tory colleague says of Mr Davis: “He’s the only man I know who can swagger while sitting down.”

But nobody has ever doubted Mr Davis’s self-confidence. What has come as a surprise to some is the way in which he has applied himself to a highly complex brief, disappearing from public view and then emerging with the confidence and respect of Theresa May, a prime minister who gives neither easily.

“Facts first, decisions second” is one of Mr Davis’s favourite dictums according to a former staffer. “Load, aim, fire — not load, fire, aim” is another. Watching Mr Davis commanding the stage this week as Britain triggered the Article 50 exit clause, it seemed that the former reservist in the elite SAS was following his own advice.

Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, says this was the week when it became clear that Mrs May was determined to reach a deal with the EU and was ready to compromise. Securing that goal could depend much on the relationship between Mr Davis and “Michel”, who at the age of 66 is also on the comeback trail.

“Like Barnier, Davis wants a deal,” Mr Grant says. “He’s building a relationship with Barnier and that’s to his credit. For both of them, it is one last hurrah.”

John Kerr, the veteran British diplomat who drafted Article 50, agrees: “Michel Barnier will do a very good job, as will David Davis.”

Mr Davis was born in 1948 and was brought up by a single mother in a council flat in south London. He tells the story of how he once single-handedly took on a gang of thugs who bullied a gay boy. His crushed nose is the result of multiple breaks and a visible manifestation of his tough guy image.

Mr Davis went from grammar school to take a masters degree in business before joining Tate & Lyle. By the age of 38 he had been elected as a Conservative MP in the northern seat of Boothferry and in 1994 he was appointed by John Major, another south London grammar schoolboy, as Europe minister.

The libertarian Tory remained in the post for three years, developing an expertise in EU affairs in the aftermath of the Tory civil war over the 1992 Maastricht treaty. But that was 20 years ago, and Mr Davis’s contacts in Europe today are patchy. “He is unknown in Brussels,” insists one senior EU official.

However Mr Davis did make one useful contact during that time. Moving between castles in Luxembourg and an ancient nunnery on the Sicilian coast, he worked with Mr Barnier on a “reflection group” working on a new EU treaty. Mr Davis revelled in his reputation as “Monsieur Non” and it was here that his Euroscepticism took root. Both he and Mr Barnier set off on chequered political careers, punctuated by spells in the wilderness.

Mr Davis, who once abseiled off the Humber Bridge for charity, has enjoyed a precipitous political career. In 2005 he was favourite to succeed Michael Howard as Tory leader but his flat campaign was remembered mainly for what he admits was “a fucking awful speech” and a maladroit picture with two women wearing tight T-shirts saying: “It’s DD for me.” An open-necked David Cameron, dispensing smoothies to journalists, made Mr Davis look like the past.

Mr Davis became Mr Cameron’s shadow home secretary but in 2008, as he stood on the threshold of power, he quit his parliamentary seat to trigger a by-election to highlight the erosion of civil liberties. Mr Cameron was furious and sacked him: he saw the move as a distraction and evidence of Mr Davis’s unreliable nature.

His rehabilitation by Mrs May almost a decade later was therefore not only a surprise to many at Westminster but also to Mr Davis himself. But Tory MP Andrew Mitchell says: “He’s very tough, he has a brain like a steel trap and he is charming. That steely charm will come in useful in the negotiations.”

Mr Davis was one of the “three Brexiters” appointed by Mrs May to key cabinet jobs in July last year but in the intervening months he has emerged as top dog, eclipsing the more hardline Eurosceptics Boris Johnson and Liam Fox to become a significant British player in the endgame of Brexit.

Mr Davis lists Margaret Thatcher and the Duke of Wellington as his political heroes, two leaders who fought their own different battles in Brussels. If he pulls off a smooth Brexit, he will have his own place in history, but as one former cabinet minister warns: “If it’s a disaster he’ll be in the history books for a different reason — along with David Cameron.”

The writers are the FT’s political editor and chief political correspondent

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