UK govt in serious crisis after brexit secretary David Davis resigns over “weak exit” plan
His resignation was swiftly followed by that of fellow Department for Exiting the EU ministers Steve Baker and Suella Braverman. It forces May to reshuffle her government, at the same time as trying to convince back benchers to support her plan.
Davis sent a bluntly worded resignation letter to Theresa May, saying he would not be a “reluctant conscript” to her plan, which was “certainly not returning control of our laws in any real sense”.
Davis has told friends he cannot live with the soft Brexit stance agreed between ministers on Friday, which proposes a “UK-EU free trade area”, governed by a “common rule book”.
Theresa May will now have to confront furious pro-Brexit MPs in parliament on Monday, knowing she has lost the backing of one of the leavers’ champions in government.
The prime minister is facing a growing backlash from the pro-Brexit wing of her party, with MPs warning they are prepared to trigger a leadership contest.
If at least 48 MPs send letters to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the powerful backbench 1922 committee, he would have to call a vote of no confidence – though many of May’s supporters in the parliamentary party believe she could win it.
Dozens of Tory MPs have attended emergency briefings in Downing Street since the Chequers summit on Friday, at which Boris Johnson said that colleagues would be “polishing a turd” if they tried to defend the plans to the party and public.
Davis had clashed with May on several occasions in recent weeks, including over when the long-awaited white paper setting out the government’s Brexit position should be published.
He would prefer a much looser, Canada-style relationship with the EU27 after Brexit — a proposal rejected by the cabinet on Friday.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the prominent pro-Brexit MP, said he would vote against May’s plans. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Rees-Mogg said: “If the proposals are as they currently appear, I will vote against them, and others may well do the same.”
He said May’s version was “the ultimate statement of managing decline” and “focuses on avoiding risk, not on the world of opportunity outside the EU”.
But May will tell the Commons: “In the two years since the referendum result we have had a spirited national debate, with robust views echoing round the cabinet table as they have on breakfast tables up and down our country. Over that time, I have listened to every possible idea and every possible version of Brexit. This is the right Brexit.”
The prime minister also plans a fresh round of high-level diplomacy this week, in a bid to persuade the EU27 not to reject her plan outright.
She is expected to talk directly to European leaders including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron
“Our message now is to the other side, to Europe, that it’s time to get serious and sit down and talk about it,” she said on Sunday. “It’s now for Europe to be prepared to sit down and move the pace of negotiations on and talk about it seriously and address what we’ve put forward.”
Some pro-Brexit MPs fear the prime minister’s plan will be regarded as an opening salvo by Brussels and she will be forced to make further concessions, possibly on free movement, before the next crunch summit in October.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has said the EU is ready to adapt its offer should the UK’s red lines change. However, May has agreed to ramp up preparations for a “no deal” Brexit in case Brussels – which described her previous customs proposals as “magical thinking” – rejects them.
One senior Tory said that the government would have to take “a couple more steps” towards the EU’s position before a final deal is struck, even if it meant Brexiters swallowing more bitter pills. “Behind the scenes there’s a recognition that there needs to be a bit more movement on both sides,” he said.
However, a No 10 source said: “Yes it’s a negotiation, but this isn’t about making concessions, this is about challenging the EU. It’s a good, pragmatic, workable solution that benefits all our economies and also our citizens. It’s time for Europe to get serious.”
However, May will need to get her proposals past the party first. She will make a statement to the Commons on Monday before facing a fractious meeting of the backbench 1922 committee in the evening.
Michael Gove, who is understood to have been instrumental in getting the leave-supporting cabinet on board with the proposals, urged pro-Brexit MPs to rally behind May on Sunday.
The leading Brexiter said the deal the prime minister achieved at Chequers was not everything he had hoped for, but it honoured the result of the referendum and the cabinet was behind it, meaning that collective responsibility would prevail.
“Those of us who believe that we want to execute a proper Brexit and one that is the best deal for Britain, have an opportunity now to get behind the prime minister in order to negotiate that deal,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
“I’m a realist and one of the things about politics is you mustn’t make perfect the enemy of the good. One of the things about this compromise is that it unites the cabinet.
“We achieved all of the things that we campaigned for in order to ensure we could leave the EU, but we also do so in a way which respects some of the wishes and some of the concerns of some of my colleagues that voted remain.”
Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns said she would “100%” submit a letter to the backbench 1922 committee to trigger a contest. “I’d put the letter in if these red lines were severely watered down and we had one foot in, one foot out,” she said.
Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, added: “I can’t support the offer which emerged at Chequers – I think it’s a breach of the red lines … Obviously if the government and the prime minister continue to support that very poor offer then I won’t have any confidence in [them].”
One senior pro-Brexit source told the Guardian: “It’s terminal. We think this is going to lead to a bigger split than Maastricht, on a more serious issue, with a smaller majority, and it’s not Tony Blair that lies on the other side of all of this, it’s Jeremy Corbyn. We think it’s an absolute disaster.”
Most remain-supporting MPs welcomed the proposals as a sensible starting point, adding that the “devil was in the detail” of the Brexit white paper, although former minister Phillip Lee, who quit over Brexit, said it represented an attempt to find the “least worst” option that was not in the best interests of the country.