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7 June 2018

Will David Davis quit as Brexit Secretary over Theresa May’s EU customs backstop plan?

Have no doubt, this would be a pointless resignation. 

By Stephen Bush

Nervous waits all round: for Theresa May and for me, as my column this week begins with a rhetorical question that may age very badly: “what is David Davis’s job?”

Is David Davis going to walk out over the lack of a time-limit to the backstop? (The fall back arrangement that guarantees there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland in the event that no alternate arrangement is reached.)

On the one hand, this isn’t the first time that friends of Davis (or Davis himself) have hinted he might quit as Brexit Secretary – it is, in fact, the fifth. 

On the other, it’s the looming 10-year anniversary of the most pointless by-election in history, when Davis quit his job as shadow home secretary in protest over 42 days detention (a policy his party opposed), triggering a by-election in his ultra-safe seat as a referendum on the issue. (The other parties sensibly denied him the spotlight by not fielding candidates.) The Brexit Secretary has form on pointless resignations.

And have no doubt, this would be a pointless resignation. For the fall back arrangement to be meaningful, it can’t be time limited. And as far as the question of the future EU-UK relationship in concerned, the important fight was in December when Theresa May reached an agreement on the terms of exit. Avoiding infrastructure on the Irish border severely limits the available flavours of Brexit, as the only way to do that is to have a high level of customs and regulatory alignment with the EU after we leave.

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As Alex Wickham noted in his smart piece for Politico earlier this week, the problem that Brexiteers face is that they cannot remove May on their own, and they don’t have the votes in parliament for their preferred version of exit.

But the problem that May has is that as it will always be in Labour’s interest to vote down whatever deal she brings back to force an early election, it may be that there is no relationship with the EU – not Brexit, not Remain – that can command a majority of votes in parliament.