After months of prevarication, two of the leading Brexiteers in Cabinet have fallen on their swords. The first to go was the former Conservative leadership contender and Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, who resigned late last night along with his deputy, Steve Baker. Not to be outdone, potential future Conservative leadership contender and Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, resigned this afternoon – after urging Cabinet colleagues on Friday to back the Prime Minister.
The agreement reached at Chequers was a soft Brexit by any other name. The UK and the EU would agree common rules for all goods – including on agriculture – and the UK would commit through a treaty to “ongoing harmonistation”. While Parliament would be able to prevent this, the agreement adds somewhat ominously that “this would have consequences”. A new customs arrangement, with different tariffs applied to goods depending on their final destination, would avoid border checks on the Irish border, while UK courts would continue to pay “due regard” to EU case law in areas where common rules applied.
For a few glorious days over the weekend Theresa May might have thought she had pulled it off and united Remainers and Leavers in Cabinet over her vision of Brexit. The result surprised many observers, who had been expecting another fudge, with tough decisions kicked into the future, or a ministerial bloodletting, with resignations or sackings of senior Brexiteers. The fragile truce lasted just two days, however. There was much in the agreement to enrage committed Brexiteers. The European Court of Justice – long a totemic issue for Eurosceptics – would continue to influence UK law. The commitment to ongoing harmonisation through a treaty seemed to take power away from Parliament and sink any chance of meaningful divergence. The commitment to maintaining standards was another red flag for Leavers, who felt this would undermine any attempt to strike up new trade deals with the US and the rest of the world. To Conservatives who argued for Britain to leave the EU, the UK would leave the political structures of the EU but continue to be bound by its rules and regulations – hardly taking back control.
The resignations will embolden Conservative backbenchers and narrow the route through Parliament for any final deal. Even with the DUP, the Prime Minister’s majority can be overturned by a relatively small number of Conservative rebels who make common cause with the small number of Leave-backing Labour MPs. Conservative rebels now have a figurehead in the departed Foreign Secretary and a ringleader in Steve Baker, former chairman of the Eurosceptic European Research Group, Steve Baker. The PM will now be hoping to peel off support from the Chequers agreement from pro-EU rebels in Labour and other parties – though it’s hard to see any Liberal Democrat or SNP MPs backing her.
More significantly, there’s the possibility of a leadership challenge and even a general election, all in the midst of negotiations with Europe. Until now, Tory whips have used the looming spectre of a left-wing government under Jeremy Corbyn to persuade rebels to back the Prime Minister. The question’s whether that fear still outweighs their opposition to a soft Brexit.
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