British Prime Minister Theresa May went into this past weekend with a plan to save her government. She has come out of it weaker than ever. The reason, of course, is Brexit.
Facing increasing pressure from both internal party critics and her European interlocutors about her apparent lack of a coherent plan, and profoundly aware that the deadline for negotiations is next spring, the Prime Minister gathered her Cabinet at the Prime Minister’s official country residence Chequers to hash out an agreement on how to proceed. As with many compromises, it left no one completely satisfied. But she confidently announced that it meant the government would stand united in the future.
That unity lasted barely twelve hours. Sunday night, David Davis, the Cabinet minister in charge of the Department for Exiting the European Union, tendered his resignation, claiming that he could not support the deal after all because he did not “believe” in it and was “unpersuaded” that the government’s negotiating approach “will not just lead to further demands for concessions” from Brussels. “The general direction of policy,” he announced in his resignation letter, “will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one.”
Accompanied out the door by his junior minister Steve Baker, Davis intended to make a splash, burnishing his credentials as the strongest advocate of Brexit and countering criticism that he had not accomplished much in his two years in office.
Davis’s turn in the spotlight turned out to be much shorter than he intended. By Monday, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson added his name to the list of former Cabinet ministers. Johnson’s departure raised the political stakes considerably for May. As both the most senior Cabinet member and a long-rumored candidate for the Prime Ministership himself, Johnson’s decision to leave the government positions him to challenge May directly for leadership.
May’s problems have their roots in the Brexit referendum in 2016. Prime Minister David Cameron had hoped that simply holding the vote would be enough to satisfy Euroskeptic members of his ruling Conservative Party and allow him to move on to other items on his political agenda. He did not expect to lose. In that historic “in or out” vote on British membership in the European Union, what FPRI Senior Fellow Andrew Glencross calls Cameron’s “Great Miscalculation,” nearly 52% of voters chose Brexit. In response, Cameron, who had promised that he would stay in office no matter the result, simply quit, tossing the hot potato to his former Home Secretary, Theresa May, who has been juggling it ever since.
Prime Minister May had campaigned limply for Remain during the referendum, but positioned herself as a moderate and responsible voice after David Cameron abandoned his post. Promising a “strong and stable” government, May announced that “Brexit means Brexit,” without being able to say for certain what that would be. Although Brexiteers point to the electoral result as the definite will of the British people, it was never clear whether all those who voted for Brexit were voting for the same thing. The Leave campaign made a great many promises, from a windfall for the National Health Service to the re-assertion of Britain as a global power. Voters were encouraged to assume that the British could escape all the things they did not like about the European Union (such as free movement of people, further political integration, and the British contribution to the EU budget) while keeping all of the economic benefits of membership (from free trade within the bloc to the special role of the City of London in Europe’s financial dealing). These hopes collided quickly with reality once negotiations began. Especially difficult have been questions surrounding the future border between northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (the one land crossing between the EU and the UK) and whether the UK can expect to benefit from free movement of goods and services while restricting the movement of people.
Boris Johnson, who had flirted with the Remain camp before stunning his frenemy David Cameron by becoming a leader of the Leave movement, unashamedly embraced the ambivalence of Brexiteer sentiment. He summed up his Brexit strategy by saying Great Britain could “have our cake and eat it.” Ever since pilloried as “cakeism,” this approach to Brexit has left Prime Minister May in a difficult spot as she negotiated with Brussels and with her own party.
Cakeism may be irresponsible, but it is also considered too soft by those Tories who simply think that Britain should get out of the EU completely and build its relationships with the world from scratch thereafter. Such advocates of a “hard Brexit” include not only the recently departed Mr. Davis, but also prominent backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has become something of a rock star for British conservatives.
May has been no fan “cakeism.” Her favorite dessert is, rather, fudge. Trying to avoid hard decisions, she has both announced that “Brexit means Brexit” while also hinting, with the support of her Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, at flexibility in negotiating the final deal with Brussels. So far, her offerings have not been very palatable for either side. From her first day in office to this week, May and her Cabinet have struggled to find consensus. A snap general election in 2017 weakened her further, as the Tories lost their majority and now depend on the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.
May intended to make the Chequers agreement the final basis for a softish Brexit, allowing Britain a status not unlike Norway—with access to the European markets, within some unspecified regulations, and freedom from EU political integration. Such a deal would be inferior to EU membership (the UK would still have to pay for access to the market, as Norway does, but would no longer have any say in those regulations it would be expected to follow), but it would allow the possibility of controlling immigration, thus satisfying a main Brexiteer demand. A soft Brexit could also avoid undue friction along the Irish border.
Ultimately, neither Davis nor Johnson felt they could support this consensus, throwing the Chequers agreement and Britain’s negotiating position into further disarray. May has moved quickly to replace her departing colleagues and has vowed to fight any effort to topple her, but her future remains murky. Political rivals are circling to decide what they can get.
Remainers across Britain have greeted the news of the resignations with barely disguised glee, claiming that could be the start of a reconfiguration of British policy, if not a reversal of the Brexit decision altogether.
But Remainers should be careful not to count their chickens too early. Hard Brexiteers have also cheered the resignations, for quite the opposite reason. They see them as a just reaction to the wobbly policy of Prime minister May and hope that it signals the beginning of a formal rebellion within the Tory ranks. Rumors of a no-confidence motion are growing and could become reality by the time you read this post.
A key figure in the days to come will be Environment Secretary Michael Gove. A partner and rival with Johnson in advocating Brexit, Gove has so far chosen to stay within the government, calling himself a “realist“ and urging his colleague to back the Chequers plan. Gove is playing a careful game, relying on his Brexiteer credentials to give him credibility as a possible successor to Theresa May, while avoiding the appearance of disloyalty.
All of this, of course, leads to the question of whether anyone in the Conservative Party wants a new general election. It is hard to see that as an attractive option, both because it would create further uncertainty as the Brexit deadline approaches and because polls suggest the Tories and the DUP could lose their majority altogether. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has promised to carry Brexit through, would be happy to take over. May has already used that threat in her effort to discipline her party colleagues.
This crisis provides background music not only to the Brexit talks, but to British preparation for the upcoming NATO summit.
To add to the excitement, the British are also planning to welcome a special visitor on July 12: the President of the United States, Donald Trump. Trump has called himself “Mr. Brexit” in honor of his own criticisms of the European Union and his own surprise electoral victory. It remains to be seen if he will have any useful advice to offer the embattled British Prime Minister, whoever she (or he) may be.