(Economist) The revolt gathers against Theresa May’s Brexit plans
HAVING kept suspiciously quiet all morning Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, confirmed the rumours whirring around Westminster and resigned in the afternoon on July 9th. He follows David Davis as the second minister to resign from Theresa May’s cabinet over the Brexit agreement hammered out on July 6th at Chequers, Mrs May’s official country residence. David Davis’s deputy, Steve Baker, has also resigned from the Department for Exiting the European Union.
Mr Johnson was the most visible and probably most effective leader of the Brexiteers during the EU referendum campaign in 2016. Even before his resignation he had let it be known that he was deeply unhappy about the Chequers agreement, reportedly comparing it to “polishing a turd”. Like Mr Davis, he has been unenthusiastic about the government’s softening on Brexit for some time. He has long harboured ambitions to lead the Conservative Party, and may have calculated that if there is to be a leadership challenge against Mrs May, this is his last chance to claim the throne.
Immediately after Mr Johnson’s resignation, Mrs May was forced to defend her Brexit plan in the House of Commons. She made a robust defence of her position, and won support from Remainer Tory MPs, who hope that the prime minister has at last summoned up the courage to face down the hard-Brexiteers.
In his resignation letter to the prime minister, Mr Johnson argues that Britain is heading for a “semi-Brexit”. In particular, he says that the Chequers agreement surrenders “control over our rulebook on goods and agrifoods”, reducing Britain to the status of a “colony”. In answer to critics who ask why he did not resign on July 6th, he has this to say: “As I said then, the government now has a song to sing”. He goes on: “The trouble is that I have practised the words over the weekend and find that they stick in the throat.” In a radio interview an aide to Mr Johnson said that the former foreign secretary had not taken the decision lightly, and that further ministerial resignations were “certainly possible”.
DOMINIC RAAB, a leading Brexiteer, has been appointed the new Brexit secretary following the resignation of David Davis late on Sunday night. The promotion of Mr Raab, the former housing minister, maintains the balance between Brexiteers and former Remainers in the cabinet. Despite this, however, the government’s divisions are being exposed as never before.
Prompted by Mr Davis’s resignation, hardline Brexiteers have been using the morning radio and TV programmes to attack the prime minister’s approach to Brexit and in particular the plan agreed at Chequers, her country residence, on July 6th, which provoked the departure of Mr Davis. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, has remained conspicuously silent this morning but has been reported as saying of the Chequers agreement that it amounted to “polishing a turd”. Angry and disillusioned Tory backbenchers are talking openly of a leadership challenge to Mrs May. The government, which lacks a majority in Parliament, appears to be in disarray.
Following Mr Davis, the charge against the Chequers agreement was joined by Steve Baker, a junior Brexit minister who resigned with his boss. He has also accused Mrs May of giving too much away to the EU, claiming the government has made “mistakes” all along in its negotiations with Brussels. He claims that his department was “blindsided” by the prime minister’s proposals, which include remaining in a common regulatory area with the EU for goods. Mr Baker argues that this represents a “significant evolution” from Mrs May’s previous speeches on the subject.
Backbench Brexiteers were much less polite this morning. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the main Tory pressure group advocating a hard Brexit, the European Research Group, said the Chequers agreement sought to “stymie” Brexit rather than deliver it. Another Tory MP, Marcus Fysh, called the government’s policy an “absolute stinker”; his colleague Andrew Bridgen said he had “no confidence” in Mrs May’s policy, and thus no confidence in her. He warned darkly that “a large number of my colleagues will have that same view”, raising the prospect of a leadership challenge. That requires the nod from just 15% of the parliamentary party, 48 MPs. Mr Bridgen predicts a “huge backlash” among Tory MPs over the Chequers agreement.
At least Mrs May has received the backing of some of the other Brexiteers in the cabinet. Michael Gove, the environment secretary, was the first to back the Chequers policy publicly. Liam Fox, the trade secretary, has also backed her. This morning Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons, supported her.
Mrs May is due to brief Parliament in the afternoon of July 9th on her Chequers plan, while her chief of staff is also calling in opposition MPs and peers to give them a briefing. The prime minister’s task is to staunch a full-scale Brexit revolt—and that is before she has even presented her plans to the EU negotiators.