May faces crisis as Brexit minister quits

Days after hammering out a joint approach on leaving the EU, the UK government is riven by divisions

Madrid: From the moment United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May planned to closet her cabinet ministers into Chequers last Friday to reach a common front on how to reach a common agreement over its approach to Brexit, she had anticipated resignations from her government.

And late on Sunday evening and early on Monday morning, they came.

First David Davis — the man hand-picked by May to negotiate Brexit — quit over the deal reached at the PM’s country residence, followed then by deputy.

But the biggest political bombshell came on Monday afternoon when Boris Johnson, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, handed in his resignation.

In effect, May’s attempt to reach consensus on a softer Brexit has now backfired, driving hard-line Brexiteers from her deeply divided cabinet and setting up the prospect of a review of her leadership of the Conservative party and threatening her very government itself.

Now the question is whether other Brexiteers within cabinet will follow suit, or whether her Conservative party will revolt against her leadership.

Under party rules, 48 Members of Parliament need sign letters demanding a leadership review, and given the repercussions from the Chequers accord and the resignations of two high-profile ministers, party officials believe now there might be enough support for such a vote.

Either way, the resignations have precipitated a major crisis for the British government, UK political analysts told Gulf News yesterday.

“The resignation of David Davis is likely to embolden other Eurosceptics to rebel against Prime Minister Theresa May,” Professor Matthew Goodwin, a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Kent in Southern England, told Gulf News before news of Johnson’s mid-afternoon resignation broke.

“Though they are by no means a majority in parliament, the supporters of a harder Brexit will seek to use this moment to reshape the proposed model of Brexit and perhaps also the Conservative Party more generally.”

He has suggested that with “Davis outside of the cabinet, will other pro-Brexit MPs stage a more serious rebellion against Prime Minister May and her soft vision of Brexit, suggesting that this element may now feel emboldened now that there is no longer a serious one of their ranks at the centre of the negotiating process.

Johnson’s resignation certainly seems to suggest that is so, and all eyes are now on Environment Secretary Michael Gove to see if he will join his fellow hard-line Brexiteers and resign, perhaps dealing a critical body blow to the May government and her leadership.

“If we have learnt anything about Eurosceptics at the centre of British politics over the past 30 years, he noted “it is that do not simply walk away quietly into the night.”

Davis’ resignation on Sunday night was quickly followed by that of his deputy, Steve Baker.

But analyst Ben Watson, isn’t convinced the sky is about to fall.

“The UK voters have grown tired of the politics surrounding Brexit, whatever their view,” Watson, founder of the Brexit Tracker, told Gulf News yesterday. It’s a digital platform that intelligently gathers and standardises over 390 economic indicators, indices, benchmark rates and Government surveys that have an influence on UK businesses and tracks how they are being impacted by Brexit.

“David Davis’ resignation will trigger neither a collapse of the Conservative government, nor a ratcheting up of the EU’s negotiating demands,” he told Gulf News. “The Chequers pact is the beginning of the end of the debate between hard or soft Brexit and the beginning of ‘middle’ Brexit. There will be further give and take between the UK and the EU and we’ll see a concessionary and practical Brexit delivered.

Foster told Gulf News that with an evenly split referendum and country, “the talk of red lines will be stopped, replaced with pragmatic and realistic solutions — fit for the real world that we happen to live in.”

The UK is committed to leaving the EU on March 29 next, and any deal needs to be signed off by both sides at a Brussels summit in October — or at a special meeting that might be convened for mid-November. Any deal would have to be approved by the UK parliament, the European Parliament and Commission and individual legislations across the EU27 states.

“David Davis really had no alternative other than resign as he was not the person to present the Chequers plan in a realistic manner to the EU,” Dr David Fraser told Gulf News before news of Johnson’s resignation broke. Fraser is an author, specialist in international relations and politics and a lecturer and adviser to the Scottish government, multinational corporations and businesses.

“Obviously [Davis] has taken the time since Friday to reflect on the matter and he had no realistic alternative,” Fraser said. “He had no choice but to resign.” But he doesn’t believe that May’s position has been intrinsically weakened by Davis’ resignation.

“I actually agree with the Prime Minister’s handling of this situation,” Fraser said.

“I believe she would have anticipated that the [Chequers agreement] would have resulted in a number of resignations from her cabinet once it had been fully digested, and realistically, David Davis could never be in a position to carry forward the negotiations now. It was a matter of time before he would resign, and he’s chosen to do that.”

Fraser noted that Davis is being replaced by a minister who can now carry forward the government’s agreed position with Brussels. On Monday morning in London, the former housing minister, Dominic Raab was named as the head of DExEU, the Department for Exiting the European Union.

“Fundamentally, the whole issue with Brexit is that it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to extricate the UK for the EU after so long,” Fraser told Gulf News. He said too that the current political crisis stems from the fact that throughout the referendum campaign, the pro-Leave side never forwarded a credible plan on how to leave the EU or what indeed Brexit would look like.

“I believe that May’s approach to the question has been correct,” he said.

Dr Fraser noted that if a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is to be avoid, the only way forward is an agreement that allows for the free movement of goods across all the borders of the European Union.

“I don’t believe that Davis’ resignation is actually as big a crisis as most commentators believe,” he said. “Her tactics have been right all along. She has played for time and in doing so has placed the more extreme Brexiteers in a more isolated position.”

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