Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s chief of staff in Downing Street from 2017 to 2019, told the Institute for Government this morning that when Boris Johnson was foreign secretary he refused to engage with the complexity of the problems Brexit would create for Northern Ireland. It is a point he makes in his memoir about that period, Chief of Staff. With the English translation of Michel Barnier’s account, My Secret Brexit Diary, just out, that means two new weighty books about the Brexit period are now available.
Both are worth reading if you are interested in the intricacies of the Brexit negotiations (although Barwell’s is better, and particularly incisive on what the various Tory factions thought, and how and why decisions were taken). Neither of them contain surprise revelations, but they both shed new light on the period. Here are 10 things I learnt from them.
1) Boris Johnson once described the Northern Ireland issue as a “gnat” in terms of its significance, Barwell writes. Describing a meeting that Theresa May chaired in May 2018 about what was then her Brexit plan, he says:
Boris was even more dismissive. David [Davis, the then Brexit secretary] acknowledged why the prime minister favoured hybrid [a customs model] but Boris was contemptuous of that. “The Northern Ireland issue is a gnat,” he declared.
2) Theresa May found Jean-Claude Juncker, and the European Commission he led, the most supportive of their many EU opponents, Barwell says. He writes:
Far from the commission taking the most hardline position, it was the closest thing we had to a friend, particularly towards the end of the negotiations. This was probably for the simple reason that, having devoted a huge amount of time to trying to hammer out a deal, commission officials didn’t want that work wasted. The British tabloid media regularly lampooned commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Selmahyr, its secretary general, when they were the two people who did most to help behind the scenes.
3) Barwell blames Sir Keir Starmer for stopping Jeremy Corbyn agreeing a deal with May on a compromise deal that would have passed parliament – and believes this was a terrible mistake for Labour. Barwell writes:
The collapse of the talks meant the end of Theresa’s premiership, and her successor was bound to be a hard Brexiteer. I presume they thought they could stop whoever came next from leaving without a deal and then win the subsequent general election. If they did, they were right on the first point, but the latter was a colossal misjudgment – if they had done a deal, it would have been much harder for Boris to portray them as blocking Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn wanted to do it, but Keir Starmer stopped it – it seems fitting that he’s now dealing with the consequences.
This is not an original claim; it is one of the main themes of Lord Ashcroft’s Stamer biography, Red Knight, which quotes David Lidington, who led the government team in the talks with Labour on a possible deal, as saying: “Starmer is one of the authors of a very hard Brexit. There is no doubt in my mind about that.”
But Barwell and Lidington may be overstating Starmer’s influence. It was not just Starmer opposed to a deal when a second referendum seemed possible; most Labour activists felt this very strongly too, and their views mattered to Corbyn as much as Starmer’s, or more.
Starmer gets a better write-up from Barnier, who after a meeting in 2018 records in the diary thinking that Starmer will one day be prime minister.
4) Barwell says one of his favourite Brexit meetings was with Len McCluskey, the then Unite general secretary. McCluskey met May in January 2019 and the Tories found him constructive because he wanted a deal to pass. Barwell writes:
I think of all the meetings the prime minister had on Brexit, this was my favourite: Len was the one person who showed some understanding of where the prime minister was coming from and was honest about what he was looking for.
5) Some of the most senior figures in Donald Trump’s administration thought Brexit was a mistake, Banier writes. Brexiters welcomed Trump’s personal support for Brexit. But, writing about a trip to Washington in July 2018 which involved meetings with Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Robert Lighthizer, the US trade negotiator, Barnier writes: “All of them, more or less directly, let us know they consider the UK to be acting against its own interests by leaving the union.”
6) David Davis, the Brexit secretary, did not want to get involved in the specifics of the negotiations, Barnier says. Barnier says this was frustrating because Davis was supposed to be his opposite number. “There is a minister officially in charge of Brexit who does not want to go into the details of the negotiations and considers that his responsibilities lie with the political debate and public explanation in his home country,” Barnier writes.
7) Barwell admits the Chequers plan would have involved a customs union with the EU, and he says he now thinks it would have been better to say so. But he says they avoided the term “because it was toxic with many Conservative MPs”.
8) Barnier says he had to persuade the European Commission to let him display the union jack, and other national flags, at its HQ. He wanted them on display for visitors. But initially he was told that was impossible because the protocol service told him only EU flags were allowed at the building.
9) Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, told a minister privately that he would support May’s deal in public ahead of the first parliamentary vote, Barwell says. Writing of the period at the end of 2018, ahead of the vote, he says: “Andy Burnham … told Greg Clark [the then business secretary] that he’d come out in favour of the deal ‘when the time is right’.”
10) Kit Malthouse, the then housing minister, infuriated No 10 when he unveiled his Brexit solution in early 2019, Barwell reveals. For a brief period the so-called “Malthouse compromise” was seen by Brexiters as a plan that could break the deadlock. But Barwell says he was “flabbergasted” when Malthouse proposed the idea, “I liked Kit, but it was jaw-dropping that a government minister with no responsiblity for Brexit policy had got involved without informing the prime minister.” Barwell says it was also “depressing” that “sensible people” could support such a “nonsense” idea.
Gavin Barwell at the IfG this morning. Photograph: Institute for Government