Deal or no deal? Soft Brexit plan a hard sell for May
She’s survived a bruising week. But as Eurosceptics predict Britain will end up a ‘vassal state’ and amid heavy scrutiny from Brussels, can UK Prime Minister Theresa May deliver a workable Brexit? PETER GEOGHEGAN reports
For 48 hours, Theresa May looked as if she was in control of her government. On Friday, July 6, Britain’s embattled leader called all her ministers to the bucolic prime ministerial bolthole at Chequers. The UK cabinet, almost two years to the day of the Brexit referendum, would finally agree a collective position on leaving the European Union. Any ministers that did not sign up faced the prospect of a long walk home — ministerial cars would be immediately withdrawn. That evening, to the surprise of many, May emerged with an agreement.
The so-called ‘Chequers deal’ was heralded as a major breakthrough. On the Friday evening, the BBC reported that May had emerged with her position greatly strengthened after every cabinet minister endorsed her proposals.
Afterwards, the Conservative leader sounded an unusually bullish tone, telling one British newspaper that it was up to the European Union to step up to the mark. “It’s now for Europe to be prepared to sit down and move the pace of negotiations on and talk about it seriously and address what we’ve put forward,” she said.
But by Sunday evening, such confidence had evaporated. Hardline Brexiteers had already begun to voice their disquiet with the Chequers plan. Maintaining a “common rule book” for goods with the EU, collecting tariffs on behalf of the EU, free movement for skilled workers and students from the EU, and giving “due regard” to the European Courts of Justice was too far for many Eurosceptic Conservative MPs — and for the Brexit minister David Davis.
As Sunday night moved into Monday morning, Davis announced that he was resigning from the Department for Exiting the European Union. Davis was nominally in charge of Brexit, but in practice had been usurped by Theresa May’s most trusted aide Olly Robbins. In the previous six months, Davis — who is not known for his grasp of detail — had spent less than hours in talks with European Commission chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
In his resignation letter, Davis told May that he was “unpersuaded” that the government’s negotiating approach “will not just lead to further demands for concessions” from Brussels. “The general direction of policy will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one,” he added.
May had hoped to wake up on Monday to her first week in control of her cabinet since last June’s disastrous general election when the Conservatives lost their overall majority in the Commons, forcing them to rely on the support of Democratic Unionist MPs. Instead, the prime minister had lost her Brexit secretary and rumours were swirling of who would go next.
The most obvious candidate was Boris Johnson. Having pulled out of the race to succeed David Cameron in 2016 after the EU referendum — stabbed in the back by his running mate and Vote Leave colleague Michael Gove — Johnson was brought into the cabinet by May in a literal adoption of the old adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
Nominally Johnson was foreign secretary — one of Britain’s ‘great offices of state’ — but, in reality, he ran a freelance operation geared around manoeuvring himself into Number 10 Downing Street. The concept of collective cabinet responsibility was an alien one as Johnson penned pieces in rightwing broadsheets attacking May’s Brexit plan. But the prime minister was unable to sack the most prominent Brexiteer in her cabinet; to do would risk mutiny from her Eurosceptic backbenchers.
When Johnson did finally go — early on Monday afternoon — it was simultaneously surprising and inevitable. Johnson seemed set to stay until Davis’s resignation forced his hand. With the Brexit minister gone, Johnson would struggle to explain why he was still supporting a Chequers deal that he had told the press privately was a ‘turd’.
But there was little strategic logic to Johnson’s decision to leave.
Pro-Brexit Tories for whom any continued relationship with the European Union is anathema lack the numbers to force May out. This point was tacitly acknowledged by another resigning cabinet minister — junior Brexit secretary Steve Baker — who noted that “arithmetic” might “constrain the Government’s freedom of action”.
Baker will return to where he has always been: the anti-EU Tory backbenches. Indeed, within minutes of his resignation, he had once again been made an administrator of the WhatsApp group controlled by the European Research Group (ERG), the rather incongruously titled cadre of hardline