A lot has changed in Britain over the past 24 hours. David Cameron, who as prime minister oversaw Britain's vote to leave the European Union, has left office. He has been replaced by Theresa May, and she has made some big changes — not least, giving the distinctly undiplomatic Boris Johnson the reins of Britain's foreign policy.
However, though Johnson's new position as foreign minister has rightfully made a lot of waves, the straw-haired provocateur may not actually be directly in charge of Britain's biggest foreign policy headache: the process of leaving the E.U. Instead, that job appears to have gone to a man named David Davis.
Davis is stepping into the newly created role of "secretary of state for exiting the E.U.," a rather clunky title for which some have suggested useful acronyms (Michael Crick, a veteran journalist with Channel 4, called for the position to be called "Sexit" on Twitter). Davis will helm a new agency called the Department for Exiting the E.U., and May has reportedly ordered civil servants to find a building for it.
This is something of a rebirth for Davis. At 67, he is a veteran of the Conservative Party, first elected in 1987 while people like Cameron and Johnson were attending raucous secret society dinners as students at Oxford University. He steadily rose through the ranks, becoming the chair of the Conservative Party in 2001 and later the shadow home secretary in 2003. (In British politics, opposition parties form "shadow" governments to challenge the governing party on issues.)
Davis was a fiery presence in Parliament and became the favorite in the 2005 Conservative Party leadership contest — that is, until a dashing young politician who could match his fiery rhetoric stepped up. That politician, of course, was Cameron. (Photographs of Davis posing with two women wearing T-shirts that said "It's DD for me" across the chest while campaigning also didn't help.)
Since then, Davis has been somewhat of a critic of Cameron, often attacking him on issues related to civil liberties and styling himself as a libertarian. Davis resigned as a member of Parliament in 2008, claiming that civil liberties were being eroded in the country. He was subsequently reelected after running unopposed in a special election. He later accused the British government of "outsourcing torture" by allowing a British citizen suspected of ties to al-Qaeda to be sent to Pakistan without trial. When Cameron formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, Davis was overheard in a South London pub lampooning the alliance as a "Brokeback Coalition."
Davis remained on the back benches, but as the waves of popular Euro-skepticism began to swell, he soon found himself swept along in its currents. He knew the E.U. well — he had been a government whip during the vote on the Maastricht Treaty establishing the bloc in 1992 and later became the minister of state for Europe under Prime Minister John Major — and he had long been a critic of the E.U.
Davis became one of the key backers of the Brexit campaign ahead of the referendum last month. “I consider myself a European citizen in the broadest sense in terms of European civilization, but it doesn’t mean I want to sign up to European bureaucracy and people don’t make that distinction," he told the Yorkshire Post, recalling that his pattern of "constructive obstruction" had led his E.U. colleagues to label him the "charming bastard" during the 1990s.
He went on to back May in the post-referendum Conservative leadership contest — a move that irked some, who saw it as a betrayal of his civil liberties positions. May's decision to appoint him secretary of state for exiting the E.U. seems to signal that she's serious about her belief that "Brexit means Brexit." It also may signal that she is keen to promote the interests of those from working-class backgrounds (like Davis, May attended a state school, rather than an elite private school, a rarity in the upper echelons of the Conservative Party).
Born in York, Davis was raised in a council estate in Tooting, an economically depressed area of south London. Despite his humble background, he went on to study at the well-regarded University of Warwick before moving onto London Business School and Harvard University. Before he became a member of Parliament, he worked for 17 years at Tate & Lyle, a specialist in manufacturing sugar-based food ingredients.
That certainly puts him at odds with the high-profile Johnson, a man with an aristocratic pedigree who traversed easily from Eton to Oxford to several high-paying jobs as editor and columnist before he ended up as mayor of London. In many other ways, the pair are polar opposites. While Johnson is regarded as a somewhat slippery character who changed his position on Europe a number of times, Davis appears to stick to his convictions — even when they gain him a reputation as a maverick. He is known for his support of the reintroduction of the death penalty and vote against the repeal of Section 28, a law that prohibited local authorities from "promoting" homosexuality.
Now Davis, Johnson and Liam Fox, the new secretary of state for international trade, will have to work together to create a future for Britain outside the E.U. Davis outlined his thoughts on the matter in a 2,000-word article for the website Conservative Home this week. Suggesting that a future outside the E.U. gives the country a greater ability to make trade deals with the rest of the world, he suggests that the "probable formal departure from the E.U." should take place around December 2018.
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