Cabinet mutineers Boris Johnson and David Davis were never interested in achieving a Brexit compromise, writes Calum Henderson
The manner in which David Davis departed his post on Sunday was characteristic of the approach he had brought to the job over the last two years. Resigning at quarter to midnight, his exit had seemed likely for some time, not because he had continually threatened to walk, but because he had been frozen out by Downing Street.
Boris Johnson’s resignation fifteen hours later was equally predictable, although that did not rob it of any of its drama. Johnson, distrusted by both Brexiteers and remainers within the Tory party, could no longer remain trapped as a ghost in the machine of the cabinet, not now that it had become unfashionable for a hard-Brexiteer to cling so closely to the Chequers compromise.
Overseeing all this is a prime minister who, depending on your point of view, either has no shame or has some astonishingly deep-rooted belief in doing her duty. The fact that her summit was heralded as an achievement just a few days ago is in itself laughable – an agreed plan for Brexit should have been sorted before article 50 was triggered, not just months before a deal must realistically be agreed.
It goes without saying that the Chequers plan, which implies close alignment with European Union rules, is no more workable than previous proposals. It is likely to be rejected by the EU further down the line, yet May ploughs on. For all the stink Davis and Johnson have made, they and the hard Brexiteers do not have an alternative plan, either for a leadership bid or a Brexit deal.
Monday’s drama was about this split. On one hand, the prime minister is attempting to wrestle with reality, and on the other are the backbench Brexiteers for whom any hint at compromise is too much. The softest possible Brexit is the only way to avoid wrecking the Irish situation and the British economy. Brexiteers are fond of pointing out that many countries function happily outside the EU, but fail to remember that we have been intricately involved with the institution for 40 years, and would be ripping all our stitches out were we to simply walk away.
May could yet survive – it really does seem as if she feels compelled to fight despite all the scorn that is poured over her. She seemed remarkably calm during the Commons statement just minutes after Johnson’s resignation, sounding much less like a hostage victim than she usually does. We also know that she saw off her opponents at the 1922 Committee, and after learning that there will be no forced leadership challenge immediately, sped back to Number 10 to confirm Jeremy Hunt and Dominic Raab in their new roles as foreign and Brexit secretaries respectively. Once again, the Brexiteers, for all their bluster, haven’t got a plan.
One clear positive in these developments is that Monday saw the departure of two of Britain’s worst cabinet ministers in history. Davis is a man who had not only failed to master his brief, but found that his brief had mastered him; simple questions by political opponents and journalists exposed his lack of basic knowledge about our closest neighbours and our negotiating position. A job he was not even doing has visibly aged and diminished him.
As for Boris, where does one begin? It is probably best to think of the individuals he has let down as foreign secretary, such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Briton wrongly jailed in Iran because of his incompetence, and Dawn Sturgess, Novichok’s first fatality, who should have been his priority on Monday. His two years of mistakes, insults and general callousness as foreign secretary, a job he only acquired after botching his leadership campaign, have ruined his reputation. But it’s unlikely we’ve heard the last of him.
With May sticking to her Chequers plan, there is still an opening for a ‘Brexit betrayal’ coup from the right. What is in fact needed is unity from the left, so that May fully understands that parliament backs a soft Brexit.
Calum Henderson is editor-in-chief of Backbench. He tweets @historyboy_
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