9 July 2018

Boris has made his move. Now the Brexiteers need a plan of their own


Late last night, David Davis’s resignation left Theresa May in her most vulnerable position since last year’s disastrous general election. The departure of Boris Johnson means the Prime Minister is now as weak as she has ever been in Downing Street.

For the minister supposed to be handling Britain’s negotiations with Brussels to say, as Davis did in his resignation letter, that he was “unpersuaded that our negotiating approach will not just lead to further demands for concessions” badly undermined the credibility of the government’s flagship policy.

Boris Johnson’s departure not only turns up the temperature on May’s Brexit policy, but makes it an existential question for the Prime Minister.

Until today, frustration at May’s handling of Brexit hadn’t looked like toppling her for two reasons. First, the Prime Minister’s failure to produce a definitive Brexit plan meant that it made sense for disgruntled cabinet to stay and fight for their preferred version of Brexit. The Chequers proposal, complete with the Prime Minister’s firm reassertion of collective cabinet responsibility, meant that improving Brexit from within started to look impossible.

Second, there was no obvious alternative to May for disgruntled Brexiteers to rally around. Well now they have their man. Some of Boris Johnson’s magic may has undoubtedly worn off. His role in the referendum turned someone who had been an unusually unifying politician into a divisive one. And his time as Foreign Secretary could hardly be described as a success. But he remains a huge figure: the one politician without whom Brexit would not have happened and one of the very few senior politicians everyone in the country has heard of.

Johnson’s departure therefore makes a confidence vote in May as Conservative leader very likely indeed. The consensus is that she would almost certainly survive that vote were it to happen now. But that could change quickly — especially if, as seems likely, the EU rejects the Chequers proposal. And when it does, there is now a clear alternative.

When it comes to Brexit, the last 24 hours mean the range of possible outcomes could hardly be wider. At this admittedly very chaotic point in time, it is hard to see how May will have the votes she needs to pass her Brexit deal in the Commons this autumn.

Looked at from another angle, this has been the best day in some time for those who want to keep Britain in the Single Market and the Customs Union. It has been the best day in some time for those who want to stop Brexit from happening altogether. It has also been the best day in some time for those committed to a hard Brexit. And the probability of Britain crashing out with no deal is considerably higher now than it was at the end of last week. As is the chance of a second referendum.

The hard Brexiteers’ priority is clearly to force the Prime Minister to drop her present proposal. The Parliamentary arithmetic will make that pressure hard to resist.

But the Brexiteers’ argument would be far more persuasive were they to take more seriously the task of fleshing out and uniting around a plan of their own. Picking holes in Theresa May’s proposals is a lot easier than coming up with a water-tight alternative and a strategy for getting Brussels to agree to it.

Hardline Brexiteers are in agreement about what is wrong with a soft Brexit, but they do not agree on the particular sort of hard Brexit they should be pushing for. Some have no problem with a no-deal outcome. Others want something only slightly different to May’s proposal.

There is no majority in the House of Commons for the Chequers Agreement. But — maddeningly — that doesn’t get Britain much closer to settling on an alternative that does.

Oliver Wiseman is Editor of CapX.