In less than a week, in the space of just a few days, PM Theresa May has told off not one, but two of her cabinet ministers. David Davis, the so-called 'Minister for Brexit' and Liam Fox, the Minister for International Trade. What is happening at the top of government?
The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union claimed that continued "membership of the single market (was) very improbable" to what the 10 Downing Street's spokeswoman commented that David Davis was only "setting out his view" rather than government policy.
As for the Secretary of State for International Trade, he called "British business too fat and lazy". Again, Downing Street said Liam Fox was clearly "expressing private views".
"Not government policy". "Private views".
In the meantime, Chancellor Philip Hammond (who was a Remainer) talked freely about exemptions from curbs to free movement of people for 'highly skilled' workers. This time, no comments from Downing Street.
One can imagine three possible reasons for the odd situation of cabinet ministers being put back in their place in such a short period of time:
1. The hijack.
By speaking out, the Brexiteers in government are trying to hijack Theresa May's government policies on Brexit, forcing the way for a quick and hardcore Brexit (whether they feel under the pressure of Eurosceptic backbenchers, or not). Some Leave politicians and supporters have indeed started to feel frustrated at the idea that the government is taking very long to decide on the policies for Brexit.
2. Genuine assumption.
The Brexiteers in government brought their ideas to the table when the cabinet met and genuinely assumed Theresa May agreed with them and would want to apply these as policies to make Brexit a success. Thing is, she either didn't actually like their ideas, or thought it was still too early to throw them in the public eye, or simply wants to keep control of what she thinks Brexit should look like and doesn't want anyone else to steal her thunder (she's the PM after all!). Anyway, they ended up being told off by proxy.
3. Control-freak PM.
Theresa May has a hidden master plan for Brexit: Let the Brexiteers talk about what they think Brexit must be and share their ideas in public, in the press, in conferences and as loud as possible, then undermine them afterwards by claiming that they are not talking on behalf of the government but merely expressing their views. By undermining them and ridiculing their efforts at defining a hardcore Brexit, Theresa May reminds everyone that she is the Prime Minister and that she only will eventually decide what Brexit means. Thus, the Brexit ministers will be seen as incompetent by the British public and an easy target to blame if everything goes wrong when trying to negotiate Britain's exit from the European Union.
Will Boris Johnson be the next Brexiteer to risk the wrath of his boss? Or will he and his fellow ministers all adopt a lower profile from now on to mend their ways before any formal action is taken by Theresa May? The Foreign Secretary actually pledged on Sunday to defy Theresa May by backing the "hard Brexit" campaign of Change Britain through a message he recorded to support the pressure that has been put on the Prime Minister in the last few days by Brexiteers, in which he said: "Brexit means Brexit and that means delivering on their instructions and restoring UK control over our laws, borders, money and trade."
Whichever way and whatever the reasons for the very public tensions in government, "Brexit means Brexit" still. And yet, nobody knows what Brexit means.
(Originally published at www.byline.com on October 11, 2016.)
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