When Theresa May appointed Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox to her cabinet, there was much talk of her political savvy. The prime minister, it was said, had embraced the Pottery Barn rule: “you break it, you own it”. Rather than handing key posts to Remainers, she charged the Leavers with making Brexit work.
But this theory was always overplayed. As an interventionist prime minister, it was May herself who would lead the epic task of withdrawal (a point she underlined by taking charge of a Brexit cabinet committee). Her decision to nevertheless hand significant responsibility to the Leavers would, some warned, undermine her.
The sceptics are now claiming vindication. Since becoming prime minister two months, Downing Street has been forced to publicly rebuke each of the three Brexiteers. Johnson, to the surprise of some, completed the hat-trick last night. After stating that the UK would trigger Article 50 “in the early part of next year” and suggesting that withdrawal could completed before the two-year deadline, the Foreign Secretary was swiftly admonished. “The decision to trigger Article 50 is hers,” a No.10 source said. “She will be doing it at a time when she believes it is in the best interest for Britain.”
Before Johnson’s freelancing, Davis was similarly scolded for remarking that single market membership was “very improbable” if the UK was unable to control free movement. “He is setting out his view that it is improbable,” a Downing Street official pointedly stated. “The prime minister’s view is that we should be ambitious and go after the best deal we can.”
A few days later, Fox ventured that British business was “too lazy and too fat” to drive a buccaneering nation. Once again, No.10 was forced to emphasise that the trade secretary’s views were very much his own. “The Prime Minister wants to make sure the government is looking at how we can create opportunities for British businesses overseas.”
At present, these differences have been limited to process and analysis, rather than policy. May’s allies privately recognise that it is “very improbable” that the UK will be able to maintain single market membership (as opposed to “access”) and control free movement. Davis, a candid man, was merely stating what most in Westminster regard as obvious.
But the more time passes, the harder it will be for the prime minister to prevent greater differences surfacing. A defining choice, for instance, is whether the UK leaves the customs union, a possibility that dismays business but which is a prerequisite for Fox’s free trading ambitions. The risk for May is that rather than “fixing” the problem she has inherited, the Brexiteers leave it broken. And she will very much own it.