Two years ago, British voters decided to leave the European Union. Less than two days after seeing the Prime Minister’s chosen blueprint for respecting this historic vote, her Brexit Secretary David Davis left her Cabinet.
While he has threatened to do so before, Davis’s departure could not come at a worse time and so damaging that it is difficult seeing Theresa May survive. Davis’s reasons are spelled out in blistering detail in a resignation letter unlike any seen in recent years. No promise to act nicely from the backbenches, he accuses May of not delivering on her referendum mandate and manifesto commitments in the snap election she called. Effectively, Davis denies she has any mandate to lead Britain or proceed with her chosen deal. He blames her for a “progressive dilution” from past speeches that have led us to “a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one”.
In his view, Britain will not be taking back control from the EU. Instead we’ll remain largely where we already are. Or in other words, the whole of two years of talks with Brussels have been a pointless waste of time because the PM has meddled and muddied the waters repeatedly undermining the Brexit cause. He is joined by Brexit minister Steve Baker, a member of the hard Brexit European Research Group, that together represent a body blow against the PM’s authority to deliver Brexit.
The timing could not be worse. May’s first and only full Cabinet meeting to agree a collective position on Brexit was surely designed to create momentum as her government enters the last crunch phase of talks with Brussels. With only months left, Dominic Raab’s appointment as the new lead negotiator is far from ideal. He has not been part of any of the substantial talks and yet the one to close the final deal. Time is not on his side.
Davis’s departure puts his Cabinet colleagues Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in a terribly difficult position. If as reported they share Davis’s criticisms, they will be hard pressed to defend a “polished turd” of a position and maintain credibility with their Leave supporters. Cabinet members seem more united in wanting to keep their jobs than in being enthusiastic conscripts in May’s Brexit army.
If the three Brexiteers don’t attempt to remove May, it may be seized by others like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has become the Voice of Hard Brexit. This is his David Miliband moment to either declare his intention to remove the Prime Minister or be known most for never having done so. We will know by PMQs this week whether he’ll bottle it.
Some might say that a coup is unlikely because they simply lack the votes to get a hard Brexit through Parliament. But this overlooks the fact that for those who want no deal on the table this looks more like an opportunity than a problem.
Whatever happens this week, the biggest question of all is why May didn’t call this full Cabinet meeting two years ago when she held a larger majority and in a stronger position to handle dissent. Her poor judgement has put us all in a terribly difficult position. Brussels will be watching all of this closely in shock – never before has something gone so wrong that had to go so right.
And that’s not all. Brexit’s biggest foreign cheerleader, the US President Donald Trump, comes to town later this week. He will no doubt share his views. The only question is whether May will still be in 10 Downing Street when the Trumps finally arrive.
Thom Brooks is Dean of Durham Law School @thom_brooks