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10 July 2018

What do the resignations of Boris Johnson and David Davis mean for Brexit?

What the departure of prominent Brexiteers could mean for the UK.

By New Statesman

On Friday 6 July 2018, the government released a statement following a meeting of the cabinet at the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers. The document stated that the cabinet had agreed on a collective vision for Brexit. A quiet weekend followed. Then, at 11.30pm on Sunday night, the former brexit secretary David Davis resigned, and the following afternoon, so did the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. 

So what the hell is going on? Here’s what you need to know:

Why are David Davis and Boris Johnson resigning now? 

The meeting on Friday seemed to have ended harmoniously, and on Sunday, arch-Brexiteer and former leadership wannabe Michael Gove appeared on the Andrew Marr show to defend the deal.

While David Davis threatened to resign ahead of the Chequers meeting, he had threatened to do so many times before. His decision to resign late on Sunday, therefore, took many by surprise. In an interview the following morning, Davis said he had spent time during the weekend consulting people within the party, and that his resignation was due to his particular responsibilities over Brexit. However, on Monday afternoon, Boris Johnson also resigned

One reason for the delay may be down to the particular technique the PM used to persuade cabinet ministers at Chequers. As Stephen Bush writes, “She returned to her old playbook from the Home Office, sharply limiting access to paperwork and information ahead of the meeting. Crucially, not only mobile phones but special advisers were barred from the cabinet away-day at Chequers, which meant that ministers had to swallow (or reject) the deal en bloc based on their own grasp of the details.”

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Has anyone else resigned?

Yes – Brexit minister Steve Baker. He might seem like small fry compared to household names like David Davis and Boris Johnson, but in fact, argues Patrick Maguire, Baker’s resignation might be the most significant of them all because of his clout with the hard Brexiteers.  

How will this affect Brexit?

The awkward fact for Boris Johnson and David Davis is that their preferred Brexit – one where the UK is liberated from all EU-related rules and makes its own trade deals – looks increasingly out of touch with the facts on the ground.

As George Eaton writes, “regardless of who is in the cabinet or, indeed, who occupies No.10, the realities of Brexit are unchanged”. The biggest conundrum is that the Johnson-Davis plan almost certainly requires a hard Irish border, which UK MPs are unlikely to accept and the EU is expected to reject out of hand. 

As Stephen Bush notes, despite the revolt of the hard Brexiteers, this may be the moment the government tips towards a soft Brexit. Although the Tory party may be split, most other parties represented in the Commons don’t want a hard Brexit, and could be persuaded to back the government against the Brexit ultras. 

Theresa May gave a statement shortly after Johnson’s announcement on Monday in the House of Commons, where she argued that no prime minister could accept a deal that included a hard border in the Irish Sea (the implication of any deal that included both diverging rules for goods and services and a frictionless border on the island of Ireland). She also ruled out a deal that included staying in the existing customs union, which she said would mean continued free movement and “would not honour the referendum result”. Instead she talked of a EU-UK free trade area with a commitment to a “common rule book”, due regard for EU case law but ultimately an independent trade policy and an end to free movement. 

What does this mean for Theresa May?

In his Today interview, Davis ruled out standing for party leader, despite previously standing for the top job in 2005.

Boris Johnson’s unquenchable and barely-disguised ambition to rule has long been observed. However, as Stephen Bush writes, his tenure as foreign secretary was strewn with gaffes – including possibly condemning a British national in Iran to more jail time – and he has made enemies in the parliamentary party. As Stephen puts it: “It is far more likely that Johnson’s exit marks the end of the former mayor’s frontline career rather than May’s.” 

Technically, the way to remove May as leader (and by default as PM) is for her to lose a vote of confidence in her leadership. For one to be triggered, 15 per cent of the Conservative parliamentary party (currently 48 MPs) need to write to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, a group of Conservative backbenchers. The authors of the letters are anonymous, and only the chairman, Graham Brady, knows how many there are. This process was last used to unseat Iain Duncan Smith in 2003, when the party was in opposition. 

On Monday night, May met the 1922 Committee, and appeared to win them over, at least temporarily. 

Who is replacing the departing ministers in the reshuffle?

In place of David Davis, May has appointed Dominic Raab as Brexit SecretaryAs Jonn Elledge writes, Raab is best known for calling feminists “bigots” and co-authoring a book complaining Brits are idle. However, he is more likely to be loyal to May than the outgoing Brexiteers. 

In place of Boris Johnson, May has appointed Jeremy Hunt, previously health secretary. This is widely seen as a promotion, but as Patrick Maguire notes, holding the foreign brief is something of a poisoned chalice. Being abroad naturally leaves less time for hobnobbing in the corridors of Westminster. 

Matt Hancock has been appointed to replace Jeremy Hunt at the Department of Health, and this in turn left a job opportunity in the form of the secretary for digital, culture, media and sport. This has been filled by Jeremy Wright. 

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