May’s Flank Now Truly Exposed


With the resignations of Boris Johnson and David Davis, the good ship Theresa May is taking on water. It may be that the Brexit negotiations sink it entirely. Now Mrs May is attempting the impossible. On the one hand she is trying to reach agreement across the deeply divided Tory Party. On the other hand, she is looking for something that the EU can agree with as well. This plan was always likely to end in rifts that could not be overcome.

Boris bowed out with a touch of poetry. The dream of Brexit was suffocating under needless self-doubt, he claimed in his resignation letter. He was concerned that the Chequers proposal would leave Britain a colony of the EU. With a shared rule book and a single customs position it would be harder for Britain to negotiate trade deals with the rest if the world. We would be a rule taker and not a rule maker. For many the proposal is a betrayal of the Brexit voters who voted for far more freedom than the proposal contains. As Boris pointed out in his letter, perhaps the worst thing about the proposal is that it is an opening position, likely to be watered down during negotiations.

David Davis was more prosaic in his resignation. He could not stay on to promote a proposal he did not believe in, was the thrust of his message. Losing these two notable Brexiteers is a huge loss to Theresa May. She needed them to give credibility to her as an honest broker for Brexit. Now, with them gone, she has an exposed flank which the massed ranks of the Brexiteers can attack at will.

So, will there be a leadership challenge? Timing makes it unlikely at the moment. There is so little time left before Brexit is due to happen for a full leadership election that it would seem a foolish distraction from the job in hand. Nonetheless Mrs May is trying the patience of the Brexiteers to the maximum. If the EU rejects her proposals and puts forward even worse ones from the Brexiteer perspective the writing could be on the wall for Mrs May.

It is said that Boris is politically weaker now and that may affect his prospects in a leadership challenge. It may be in his better interests to allow Mrs May to use up her strength on Brexit and emerge as a leadership contender when Brexit has happened. In the meantime, he is free to campaign for the sort of Brexit he wants. On the other hand, he may feel that his only chance of achieving his desired Brexit is to take the helm now in order to guide it through. It is an open question whether he could get the numbers in support of his bid to achieve this ambition.

With the Brexit negotiations the only show in town it is hard to see how Mrs May’s premiership can realistically outlast Brexit. She will be forever bound up with Brexit. The only question is whether she can last as long as is needed to see it through. She has lost a number of ministers from her cabinet, which is beginning to look a little like a reserve team.

The other big question of the moment is whether there is time left to do a deal with the EU at all or whether we are likely to come out in March with no deal. For many the no deal option is not such a bad thing, saving as it does the necessity to pay a hefty divorce bill on leaving. It will be a big question as to whether a watered-down Chequers proposal is preferable to a no deal.

Currently the mood among the remaining Brexiteers in cabinet, the Michael Goves and Andrea Leadsoms, is that the Chequers proposal is the best available option and that doing a deal is preferable to not doing a deal. It will be interesting to see how the Brexiteer support goes. Whether Gove, Leadsom and Fox can keep it onside or whether Johnson and Davis from the outside take it over.

In the end it has been a turbulent week all things considered. Whether Mrs May can make a go of the Chequers proposal only time will tell. So far things are not looking promising, especially now that Trump has gone public about how the Americans view her Chequers proposal.