It’s been a whirlwind 48 hours for the government. The maverick David Davis has resigned as Brexit Secretary to be replaced by the rising star Dominic Raab. This was quickly followed by Boris Johnson’s decision to quit as Foreign Secretary to be replaced by Jeremy Hunt. Matt Hancock steps into the health portfolio despite not having a background in the sector and most surprising of all Attorney General Jeremy Wright has been moved to the Department for Culture Media and Sport to be replaced by devout defender of the PM Geoffrey Cox.
So what are the implications of these announcements for the government and for Brexit?
Cabinet more united on Brexit
Davis took a principled position in choosing to resign recognising that he could not, in good conscience, promote a compromise Brexit arrangement which he did not believe in. Davis has not been happy with Number 10’s strategy for some time and has been increasingly sidelined by Theresa May’s Europe Advisor, Olly Robbins. In his resignation letter, Mr Davis told Mrs May that “the current trend of policy and tactics” was making it “look less and less likely” that the UK would leave the customs union and single market.
Once Davis had stepped down Johnson knew he had to do the same otherwise he’d look weak and unprincipled. He’s been critical of Theresa May’s decision-making and has grown increasingly frustrated at the Foreign Office where his power and influence has been significantly curbed. Some commentators have referred to him as a gilded bird locked in a cage. His exit is not a great surprise and Jeremy Hunt, a loyal supporter of May, should steady the ship and install some sensible thinking. Johnson’s hopes of one day becoming leader have surely now ended. A YouGov poll of Conservative Party members finds more (48 per cent) think he would be a poor leader than good (47 per cent).
With two of the original three Brexiteers (Liam Fox, Johnson and Davis) gone from the cabinet, May’s top team is more united than before on the government’s vision for Brexit.
Raab will help to resist the Brexit rebellion
New Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab is a dedicated Leaver and active supporter of the European Research Group who has often rallied against European institutions such as the European Court of Justice and the European Convention on Human Rights. This will help to send the signal that this is still a Brexit Brexiteers can support helping to keep at bay a Parliamentary Brexit rebellion, at least for now. For a rebellion to happen 48 Tory MPs must trigger a no confidence vote in the PM which seems unlikely even with the continued threats from Jacob Rees-Mogg. The party will be well aware that a summer leadership election will seriously hamper the chances of successful discussions on Brexit ahead of October (when negotiations must be concluded) and increase the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn entering 10 Downing Street. David Davis said after his resignation that Theresa May is a “good PM” and will stay, and a leadership contest is “the wrong thing to do… I won’t throw my hat in the ring”. Other possible leaders such as Sajid Javid and Michael Gove will have no appetite to overthrow the PM at this stage.
But Conservative Brexit voters will continue to lose faith
The Prime Minister should be concerned about the reactions of many Conservative voters. A large part of the party has lost all faith in Mrs May, and it is hard to find anyone who thinks she should lead the party into the next general election. Many Conservative voters decided to leave the EU to “take back control” of their country’s government and backed a Conservative Party whose manifesto promised to remove Britain from the single market and the customs union. They will feel that Mrs May’s proposals from last week at Chequers are a betrayal of the promises made to the people who voted for her. Don’t discount the possibility of a movement similar to UKIP re-emerging.
Brexit white paper likely to be rejected by Brussels
The government will still publish a white paper tomorrow putting in place the foundations for talks on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The paper is likely to propose an end to budget contributions, freedom of movement and ECJ oversight along with plans to remain in the single market for goods – something which the EU will perceive as “cherrypicking”. While some on the UK side point to the Swiss deal as an example of a country being in the single market for goods only, it’s understood that the EU views that agreement as a major mistake. Expect the EU to say no to the plans with a new set of proposals coming from Brussels.