Davis resignation delivers a fresh crisis for Theresa May

Analysis: Few believe PM would lose confidence vote as no majority for hard Brexit

David Davis’s resignation has delivered Theresa May a fresh crisis and increased the likelihood of a backbench challenge to May’s leadership. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

David Davis’s resignation has delivered Theresa May a fresh crisis and increased the likelihood of a backbench challenge to May’s leadership. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

 

Two days after British prime minister Theresa May appeared to stamp her authority on her cabinet and on Brexit, David Davis’s resignation has delivered her a fresh crisis and increased the likelihood of a backbench challenge to her leadership.

By replacing Davis with Dominic Raab, a committed Brexiteer, Theresa May has sought to limit the rebellion against the Brexit plan she agreed with the cabinet at Chequers.

In letter of resignation, Davis complained that the plan “hands control of large swathes of our economy to the EU and is certainly not returning control of our laws in any real sense”.

Davis has been unhappy for months, as May’s civil service sherpa Olly Robbins took ever greater control of the negotiations with Brussels.

The extent to which Davis had been sidelined became apparent last month when it emerged that he had spent just four hours negotiating with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier since beginning of this year.

On Monday morning, Downing Street made clear that Raab will not enjoy any greater authority over the negotiations than David did, pointing out that the prime minister has been Britain’s official chief negotiator from the beginning.

Steve Baker, the junior minister who resigned with Davis, is a former leader of the hardline Brexiteer European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative backbenchers. Another junior Brexit minister, Suella Braverman, who was widely expected to follow suit, has instead remained in her post.

Follow suit

The impact of Davis’s resignation will depend on whether other cabinet ministers follow suit but Brexiteer ministers Michael Gove, Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom and Chris Grayling have already spoken up in public to back the prime minister’s plan.

Boris Johnson, who is reported to have described the proposal as “a turd” before backing it, is due to give a press conference with German and Polish ministers later on Monday.

Johnson’s friends briefed over the weekend that the foreign secretary’s resignation would only benefit Michel Barnier and Angela Merkel and that he could best protect Brexit by staying on and fighting from within the cabinet.

The Chequers plan has angered Brexiteer backbenchers, but Jacob Rees-Mogg on Monday morning played down the prospect of a confidence vote, which requires the support of 48 MPs.

Few at Westminster believe the prime minister would lose such a contest and if she is challenged now, she can’t face another contest for at least 12 months.

Rees-Mogg warned, however, that a number of Conservative MPs will refuse to vote for a Brexit deal based on the Chequers plan.

Davis is almost certainly right when he says in his resignation letter that the Chequers proposal will lead to a demand from Brussels for more concessions. When the British white paper is published on Thursday, Barnier will consider it carefully before delivering a response which is likely to restate the EU’s resistance to “cherry-picking” the single market or unravelling its four freedoms.

What Davis’s resignation does not change, however, is the parliamentary arithmetic produced by last year’s election when May lost her majority. No matter how many ministers resign from the government or how many backbenchers rebel, there is no majority in the House of Commons for a hard Brexit.

Backbench Brexiteers were outraged on Monday morning when they heard that Downing Street was planning to brief opposition MPs about the Chequers proposal. If hardline Brexiteers will not back May’s plan, she may have to look across the floor to find a majority for a moderate Brexit.

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