Theresa May Rocked by Cabinet Resignations

Theresa May’s hapless government has staggered on for a year since losing its parliamentary majority in the 2017 elections, but the resignation Monday of Brexit minister David Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson means that the end is in sight for an unpopular and incompetent leader. In a twist typical of May’s shoddy and inept leadership, she tried to force her cabinet into collective responsibility for a Brexit policy that walked back from May’s own campaign promises and policy statements, only for the gambit to backfire. A vote of no confidence from Conservative MPs is now on the cards, and the sooner the better.

“Brexit means Brexit,” May insisted in a landmark speech of January 2017 that committed her government to extricating Britain from the European Union. She wanted “a new and equal partnership… not partial membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out.” Nor would Britain, May promised, “seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave.”

That sounded like “hard Brexit,” a complete severance in accordance with the referendum vote of June 2016, in which 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the EU. It sounds nothing like the “collective statement of intent” issued last Friday by May and her ministers. That statement, emitted from the prime minister’s weekend retreat, Chequers, outlined a Brexit so soft as to be imperceptible.

The Chequers’ statement described the British government’s negotiating goals in October’s final round of talks. Its key objectives include:

  • The U.K. and EU will maintain a “common rulebook for all goods,” including agricultural products.
  • After Brexit, the U.K. will continue to harmonize its laws with EU laws on goods. Parliament will vote on further changes, but refusal will carry unspecified “consequences.”
  • The U.K. will retain control over regulation of its more lucrative services sector, and consequently have less access to the European services market.
  • U.K.-EU agreements will be interpreted by a “joint institutional framework,” with UK and EU courts operating in parallel. But UK courts will continue to observe EU case law in areas in which the “common rulebook” applies.
  • In case of arbitration, the European Court of Justice, as the “interpreter of EU rules,” would be supreme.
  • The U.K. and the EU would be a “combined customs’ territory.” The U.K. will apply EU taxes and tariffs to goods and services heading into the EU, and U.K. taxes and tariffs to goods and services heading to the rest of the world.
  • EU citizens would have no automatic right of movement into the U.K., but a “mobility framework” would regulate the inflow of students or necessary workers.

This is Remain by stealth, and Brexit won’t really mean Brexit, if May has her way. The U.K. will remain tethered to the European Court of Justice and EU laws. The EU will retain the leverage of unspecified “consequences” if Britain’s Parliament rejects any element of the flood of legislation from Brussels.

Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary and head Brexiteer, was quoted as telling May at the Chequers’ meeting that any Conservative who tried to sell it to the British public would be “polishing a turd.” He noted that May had some accomplished “turd-polishers” at hand. The Chequers statement is vague enough for May, a Remainer in 2016, and her Remain-oriented allies in the cabinet and the civil service to claim that this is still Brexit. But it isn’t the Brexit that the British people voted for in 2016, and it isn’t the Brexit that May promised in 2017. It can’t be, because this proposal would leave Britain, in May’s words, “half-in, half-out,” and holding on to “bits of membership.”

All the polish in the world cannot conceal the faux-Brexit that May is trying to foist on her party and people. Nor can smearing lipstick on the porker’s chops put a smile on the face of surrender. May has placed her survival ahead of the national interest. It is not surprising that the Remainers have supported her in this; they want to undo the democratic choice of the British people. But it was shocking that Johnson and other prominent Leavers like Michael Gove put their signatures to the Chequers’ statement. They campaigned for Brexit as a defense of parliamentary sovereignty, and the independence of British law over European law. On Friday, they signed a commitment to negotiate for the surrender of parliamentary sovereignty and legal independence.

Monday’s events, however, turn all that upside down. Early in the day, David Davis, the already exasperated Brexit secretary, resigned. His resignation letter characterizes the Chequers’ statement as the unacceptable outcome of a “progressive dilution” of May’s policy promises. The Chequers’ plan, Davis said, would mean handing control of “large swathes of our economy to the EU,” and “is certainly not returning control of our laws in any real sense.” Davis’ junior minister at the Department for Exiting the EU, Steve Baker, also resigned.

Over the morning, it looked as though May might still hold the cabinet together. “It’s too unpredictable to say with any certainty what’s going to happen next,” a Westminster source with good connections to the Conservatives told me in mid-morning. “It’s all up in the air.”

It landed with a thud at noon, when Boris Johnson resigned. That deprives May of a massive fig leaf, for Johnson was the flamboyant face of the Vote Leave campaign in 2016. He was tipped for the leadership, too, after David Cameron’s resignation, only to be tripped up on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street by his erstwhile Brexit ally Michael Gove. The word in Westminster is that Boris has sulked in his tent too many times, and has missed his chance of leading the party. But Johnson, the author of a book on Winston Churchill, remains popular with the public—one of the few Conservatives, in fact, who could both sell the necessary compromises of a soft Brexit or the tough knocks of a hard Brexit, and keep Jeremy Corbyn out of power, too.

What next? May is due to address the Conservative MPs at 5:30 pm GMT. It is quite possible that other Brexiteers in the cabinet—Michael Gove and Sajid Javid, for instance—will resign before then. Everything depends, however, on the procedures of the 1922 Committee, as the parliamentary Conservatives are informally called.

If Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, receives 48 letters from Conservative MPs declaring no confidence in the party leader, he must call a vote of no confidence. On Sunday, a British tabloid claimed that Brady had already received 42 letters. Will Brexiteers now send the necessary six more letters?

“I think they might,” my Westminster source said in the morning. “But if they voted at the moment, May would probably win it.” This, though, was before Boris Johnson’s resignation.

And even if May somehow survives, her future is grim. If her new Brexit minister Dominic Raab goes to Brussels in October with the Chequers’ statement, the EU will take the Chequers’ statement as a concession, and a point of departure for further concessions.

“What happens when the EU comes back and asks for more?” my source asks. “What will she say?”

It’s now lunchtime in London. The way today is going, no one will be asking for Theresa May’s opinion by October—and quite possibly much sooner.

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