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10 July 2018

Johnson and Davis are Brexiteers who won’t acknowledge Brexit’s difficulties

Underneath their resignations is the fact that the UK is heading towards a Brexit in which we follow all the rules but can no longer set them.

By Stephen Bush

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? Theresa May will hope that’s the case after a bruising 24 hours in which she lost her foreign secretary, her brexit secretary, a slew of junior ministers – with a Commons joust with Jeremy Corbyn into the bargain.

That’s not to say that a group of Tory MPs aren’t angrier with her that they were last week – they are. But I’m irresistibly reminded of the position Corbyn found himself in after the referendum result, when most of his frontbench resigned and the mood of the parliamentary Labour party was febrile. Almost every MP you’d speak was confident that these were the last days of Corbyn. But they had a mathematical problem: the Labour leader still retained the support of party members and they had no viable way to get more than half of their activists to back a change at the top.

The most committed Brexiteers are certainly very angry, and, again, they are confident that these are the last days of May. But they have a version of the mathematical problem Labour MPs had: the Prime Minister still retains the support of more than half of Conservative MPs, which means she can resist any effort to dislodge her.  And now that the most difficult elements are outside the cabinet, May will find it easier to get any concessions she needs to make through, as the only opportunity to get a harder Brexit will be the final vote on the deal.

Yes, a handful of Conservative MPs are making noises about voting it down, but they need seven. It’s a good rule of thumb that any parliamentary rebellion, be it among Labour or the Conservatives, will be smaller in the House of Commons than it is outside of it. Once the forces of the Whips’ office, the lobbying of businesses both locally and nationally, and of at least some parts of the rightwing press kick into gear, a few of the outspoken dissidents will find they have to vote for the final deal after all. That’s not to say that May couldn’t face defeat on the final deal – but it is to say that she is not at that point yet.

It will be a cause for celebration in Downing Street that with the exception of the Telegraph, the right-wing press is if not onside, at least covering the dispute as an issue of Tory Kremlinology rather than national betrayal. The Telegraph however, goes hard on that topic with “The Brexit Dream Is Dying” as its splash and a big professional photograph of Boris Johnson signing his resignation statement.

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Speaking of Johnson’s resignation letter; the foreign secretary bowed out with a performance that was a missive that summed up his career to date: a falsehood about European regulation and buses, a historically illiterate description of the United Kingdom’s future after Brexit as a “colony” of the EU.

But underneath the Johnson shtick there’s an important point: that the United Kingdom is heading towards a Brexit in which we follow all the rules but can no longer set them. Of course, that’s the inevitable result of sharing a uniquely sensitive border with a nation that is still in the European Union, a topic that Johnson simply doesn’t bother to acknowledge in his letter.

And that’s the real divide between the Leavers who have quit the cabinet and the ones who have stayed: the ones who want to grapple with the genuine difficulties of Brexit and those that don’t.

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