Theresa May’s Three Musketeers
Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox to take on Europe and the world, but craftily set up for failure.
July 15, 2016
Britain’s new prime minister, Theresa May, has wasted no time in telling Europe and the world that Britain wants to be somewhere else.
Perhaps because she nominally supported David Cameron’s Remain campaign – in much the same way as a rope supports the hanged man – she felt confident enough in appointing three men who others might have considered their nemeses.
The three riders
This trio consists of a clown dubbed a “proven liar,” a man whose ministerial career ended two decades ago and someone who had to resign from David Cameron’s government over a murky scandal.
This threesome is now in charge of isolating Britain from Europe and telling the rest of the world this makes sense.
As regards May, it shows cunning – as well as a large generosity of spirit. Her apparent belief is that everyone should be given second and third chances. Evidently, the concept of rehabilitation beats in her heart.
It is impossible to do justice to Boris Johnson whose tabulations as a journalist in Brussels 25 years ago led his colleague, the senior BBC political editor, James Landale, to compose these lines:
“Boris tells such dreadful lies
It makes you gasp and stretch your eyes.”
One of the champions of Brexit in the press, the Conservative writer and historian, Simon Heffer, has written that Johnson is a “proven liar.”
Boris began his Brexit campaign by saying that the EU was a “Hitlerite” creation. He insisted on one of the big lies of the Leave campaign that Turkey’s 75 million citizens were about to join the EU and soon arrive in Dover.
When it was pointed out that the UK, as well as 27 other member states, could veto Turkey joining the EU and that only a tiny number of clauses in the accession process had even been examined, Johnson waved all this away.
The man who creates fires where he goes and talks
Fittingly enough, this man is now in charge of UK relations with Turkey about whose President Erdogan, Boris penned a little “jokey” poem about sex and a goat, after Erdogan got upset about a German comedian mocking him.
That aside, Boris’s first job of a Foreign Secretary is to go and visit Washington. It helps that Johnson can travel on a U.S. passport since he was born in New York.
During the Brexit campaign, Johnson said, not so hopefully, that President Obama’s modest statement that a United Kingdom out of Europe might have difficulties concluding trade deals was inspired by the U.S. leader’s Kenyan ancestry which meant he had a grudge against colonial British.
Around the world, few of Obama’s ugliest foes have stooped so low as to reflect on his skin color and African heritage. In the Boris playbook, all is permitted.
One has to feel pity for the ultra-smart officials of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They may well come to the conclusion that, had they lived in Roman times, they would have actually found it easier to deal with Nero – who famously appointed his horse to high state office.
Boris is notorious for cheating on his wife, on his Eton and Oxford comrade David Cameron and on the truth. Books have been written on his record and now more will be. And yet, he is charming and tells jokes faster than a Hollywood comedy scriptwriter.
Once, while I was crossing the Central Lobby of the Commons with my friend, Timothy Garton Ash, Boris spotted us, looked up and said, “Good God. It’s Talleyrand and Metternich.”
You can forgive a man much for that — but a British Foreign Secretary should be un homme serieux on at least two days a week.
David Davis, the undertaker
The Secretary of State for Exiting Europe – or in his very apropos FCO acronym – SEXIT or SEE EU, is David Davis.
Born in 1948, he was a sugar industry manager until entering parliament in 1992. He rose quickly under John Major, another man for whom the Tory Party was the ladder out of poverty.
Davis became Europe Minister for the last years of Major’s unhappy administration. He cheekily wrote to the Prime Minister asking that his Europe Minister job be elevated to full cabinet rank. Now 20 years later, he gets his wish.
David Davis, like all of the UK’s obsessive anti-Europeans, speaks no European language. At least he makes his Brexit case in a more measured, less excited language than others.
He has twiddled his thumbs as a backbench MP spending his 50s and 60s in the limbo where British politicians of talent are parked if their party is out of power — or if the sitting Prime Minister (of their own party) does not like them.
It definitely did not help Davis’s cause for a career under Cameron that, in 2005, he stood against David Cameron to be Tory leader.
They tied on the first ballot. At the time, there were 40 Tory MPs who had voted for the third man in the race, Liam Fox.
In 2005, Fox offered his votes to whichever man – Cameron or Davis – would agree to pull the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party – the loose federation of center-right parties.
That pan-European party grouping, which has as its members political parties like Merkel’s CDU or Rajoy’s PP, currently dominates Brussels where both Jean Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk are EPP men.
David Davis told me at the time, “I could not make the offer to quit the EPP. I didn’t like their federalist leanings, but I knew from my time as Europe Minister how much influence they had and how important it was for the Conservative Party to make its case inside the EPP family.”
David Cameron had no such scruples, promised the Liam Fox supporters in the 2005 leadership race that he would quit the EPP.
He duly did so in 2009, thus leaving London without political family contacts with EU power-brokers after 2010.
Davis is an engaging man and I have enjoyed hill-walking with him. He has offered personal support that he did not need to when I had troubles as an MP.
Unlike Boris Johnson, David Davis is a decent man and un homme serieux. But how will he handle the Brexit negotiations? No one knows.
He has written superficially about concluding trade deals with the rest of the world – North America, China, Japan, India, Korea and then telling the EU they must permit the UK access to the Single Market.
That all sounds fine, until you realize that his concept involves Britain not needing to meet a single reciprocal obligation. David Davis has never explained how this will be achieved.
It does not help his negotiating task that he has been pumping out Brexit arguments and anecdotes from the 1990s.
Now dealing with the real world, not the rhetorical one, he will find quickly that executing on the vision is much harder than he thinks.
The third musketeer is a Fox
The third member of the Brexit troika is Liam Fox, the new Trade Minister. He is a medical doctor from Scotland who now holds a safe Tory seat near Bristol.
He was a devoted admirer of Margaret Thatcher, spending time with her in her sad last years.
Fox had to leave Cameron’s government as Defense Secretary in 2011 over a scandal involving a close friend who had access to Fox’s security-sensitive diary, attended meetings and had business cards printed saying he was Fox’s adviser.
It was a matter of poor judgment and Fox had to resign in disgrace. But he is a likeable man who has now been rehabilitated.
Again, he will soon find that as he travels to Washington, Ottawa, Seoul and Tokyo that trade ministers in those capitals just do not know what to say to a UK that seriously wants to leave Europe – other than perhaps warning against the apparent British desire to score an own goal.
Every relevant foreign capital that William Hague visited in his long years as Foreign Secretary from 2010-2015, saw that country’s balance of trade with the UK improve as Hague and Tory trade ministers presided over the biggest balance of trade deficit seen in UK history.
Can Fox reverse this? Can he persuade India, for example, to drop the 150% tariff it applies to Scotch whisky? That’s very hard to imagine.
But can they deliver?
After the announcement of May’s Three Musketeers Brexit team, the pound at airports like Edinburgh and Bristol was buying just one euro so it may be argued that the UK has finally entered the eurozone.
The three laughing cavaliers of Brexit will now see if and what they can deliver. Their camp wants fast progress. Already over four million people have signed an online petition to parliament for a second referendum.
A march in London two weeks ago says 60,000 were marching to Parliament demanding a re-think.
The Brexit camp has promised an economic nirvana once outside the EU. The signs this is about to happen are few and far between.
Set up to fail
So the question emerges: Have Johnson, Davis and Fox been set up to fail by a cunning Theresa May?
For starters, the Foreign Office will not know how to handle two chiefs of equal status – Johnson and Davis. But even if the FCO mandarins manage to do so, what is the realistic outcome?
More likely than not, they will send their new political masters off on missions impossible.
How on earth could anyone square the circle:
- to persuade the EU that the UK should have full single market access
- keep $120 trillion volume of euro trades and clearing in London
- but not have to respect a single EU Treaty obligation like free movement of citizens or respect EU trade and other laws and directives?
Every EU leader from Merkel on downward has said flatly that the UK cannot have its cake and eat it, too.
Who seriously believes that the new Foreign Secretary — for all his intellectual brilliance, but also utter lack of any perceivable discipline and self-restraint and the man who wrote in his Churchill biography of a “Gestapo-controlled Nazi EU” — really sway Merkel, Schäuble and Steinmeier?
The lady’s cunning anti-Brexit strategy
May may be more of a Remainer than is realized. A key factor not to be underestimated is that she is closer to the UK deep state than anyone else left in government — other than her cynical but pragmatic Chancellor, Philip Hammond.
Allowing free rein to fervent anti-Europeans to show they can deliver is smart initial politics in the aftermath of the plebiscite result.
Everyone agrees that the June 23 vote was won on the basis of massive lies not seen in European politics since the 1930s.
Now, the men who won their plebiscite are in charge of turning their wishes into reality. They will soon confront the truth.
And if they fail, as is very likely, Mrs. May can put her hand on her heart and say, “I tried, I tried. I let the anti-Europeans run the show. Now they haven’t delivered, Britain needs a rethink.”
That smooth move could well win her the 2020 election. That’s not a bad start from a Conservative point of view.
Theresa May has wasted no time in telling the world that Britain wants to be somewhere else.
David Davis is the Secretary of State for Exiting Europe – or as in his FCO acronym – SEXIT or SEE EU.
David Davis, like all of the UK’s obsessive anti-Europeans, speaks no European language.
Have Johnson, Davis and Fox been set up to fail by a cunning Theresa May?