On Friday, after months of prevaricating, May convened a cabinet meeting at Chequers to finally present to ministers a plan that committed to firm positions on some of Brexit’s most contentious issues.
Having cultivated an atmosphere of constructive ambiguity for so long, the cabinet lock in was never going to be without its casualties. On Monday David Davis announced that, as Brexit Secretary, he felt he could not take forward May’s plan which he thought made too many concessions to the EU too early and tendered his resignation. Concerned that he had not hit the headlines since last week’s profane dismissal of business, Boris Johnson also resigned.
Although high profile resignations are never painless for a Prime Minister, these two resignations are probably the best possible outcome for May’s ability to control the cabinet. Boris Johnson was not shy about publicly criticising May’s approach to Brexit, flagrantly ignoring cabinet collective responsibility, and at times seemed to be lurching from crisis to controversy as Foreign Secretary. David Davis struggled to escape the perception that his role as chief Brexit negotiator was undermined by the EU’s preference for dealing with the senior civil servant Olly Robbins; Davis was memorably dismissed as ‘the tea boy’ by an Irish minister.
The departure of two of the cabinet’s most consistently hard-line hard Brexit proponents makes a comparatively softer Brexit much more likely. However, while May has wrested back come degree of control over her cabinet, she still faces a significant challenge in managing the relationship between her executive and the Parliamentary party and between her updated vision for Brexit and the people who voted for it.
On the first front, the membership of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group have already made clear their discontent. Rees-Mogg has tabled amendments to the government’s taxation (cross-border trade) bill which aim to block the proposed customs arrangement for goods and to prevent the creation of border in the Irish Sea. The ERG also plans to table a humble address to force the release of Davis’ rival draft white paper, which is believed to make proposals for the UK to enter into an agreement more similar to Canada’s free trade arrangement with the EU.
This group of MPs is a significant threat to May’s leadership. As a result of May’s ill-judged General Election last year, only six MPs are needed to prevent the Conservatives from having an outright majority in any vote on Brexit, forcing the government to rely on votes from the Labour party. The hard Brexit wing of the Conservative party almost certainly has enough support to be successful in a vote of no confidence against the Prime Minister, although they would not be guaranteed to defeat Theresa May in the resultant contest. For now, the Prime Minister may be comfortable calling their bluff; if the ERG’s agitation leads to the government’s collapse, Jeremy Corbyn could win the next election, which is a situation the ERG certainly do not want.
Public outrage is the lever more likely to sway Theresa May back towards a harder Brexit. While 52% of the country voted to leave the EU, it is unlikely that all of these believe they voted exclusively for a hard Brexit. However, while voters who insist on a hard Brexit are a minority of the total electorate, they are a very loud minority and they largely vote Conservative. The Telegraph’s letters editor reports that readers have not written in such numbers with such anger since the expenses scandal in 2009. The fact that these people are representative of a large portion of the Conservatives voting constituency could yet see May forced to toughen her position on EU negotiations.
For now, the resignations of two leading hard Brexit figures in David Davis and Boris Johnson put the UK on the path to a softer Brexit. But May still needs to hold her ground against her backbench MPs and the ire of their electorate.