How David Davis’s resignation could result in an even softer Brexit

The government may need Labour’s backing to pass Brexit, but the price of the party’s support will be the softest of all possible Brexits.

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David Davis has quit his post as Brexit Secretary. More troublingly for Theresa May, Steve Baker, his deputy at the Department for Exiting the European Union, has followed suit.

As Davis explains in his resignation letter, he believes that the government's Brexit strategy will result in a Brexit where the control that parliament regains from the EU will be “illusory rather than real”.

And he’s right, of course. Thanks to Vote Leave’s own promise that the Irish border would remain “as free flowing as ever” after Brexit, and the government's commitment to both that and avoiding a border between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, the only available version of Brexit on offer is one in which the United Kingdom remains within the regulatory and customs orbit of the European Union.

But it's Steve Baker's resignation, rather than Davis’, that has the potential to cause real damage to the PM. As Patrick explains in greater detail, Davis has neither the temperament nor, frankly, the organisational ability to organise dangerous rebellions on the backbenches. Baker, however, does. He has returned to the European Research Group's WhatsApp group to a hero's welcome.

There is however, a “but” coming and it is a huge one: just because you can organise a rebellion doesn't mean you can win one. The ERG can – and as far as the majority of Tory MPs I've spoken to this morning are concerned, probably will in the coming days – get enough support to trigger a vote of confidence in Theresa May’s leadership of the Conservative Party. But they can't magic up the extra 100 Conservative MPs you would need to actually win that confidence vote.

And their prospects for defeating May in the Commons are slim, too. Now that the Withdrawal Bill has passed, the day-to-day business of negotiating an exit is firmly in the hands of the executive not the legislature and May is using all of the old tricks she deployed to shut out her Liberal Democrat partners at the Home Office to prevent the Brexiteers and indeed the cabinet as a whole from asserting itself too much in the process.

There are important procedural issues in the coming votes on customs and immigration that have the potential to harden the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union, but the problem that the ERG have is that they have no partner. The Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Caroline Lucas aren't going to help deliver a hard Brexit and even if they wanted to there aren't enough of them. As for Labour, they aren't going to vote for a customs or immigration regime that reduces our market access to the EU, particularly not when they are proposed by Brexiteer backbenchers. And if Labour doesn't want to play, it doesn't matter if Steve Baker can corral 50 Tory MPs into the division lobbies with them.

In fact, there are just two votes that Brexiteer Conservative MPs can plausibly defeat the government over. The first is a vote of no confidence in the government, the one issue where the opposition parties would combine with them. The second is to vote against the final deal. Those are both awfully big adventures though, as the first risks an election they don't want and the second means an economic and constitutional crisis and potentially an election they don't want into the bargain. For most Brexiteer MPs that is a step too far.

The trouble for Downing Street is they don't need to lose most Brexiteer MPs to be in danger of defeat in a confidence vote or the final vote on the deal – they just need to lose seven. Jacob Rees-Mogg and Andrew Bridgen have already explicitly said they will vote against the final deal. It could get messy, very quickly.

Unless, of course, they can get Labour MPs to make up the numbers. Labour MPs have been invited to a briefing on the Chequers deal by Gavin Barwell, May's chief of staff. It's a smart move – but the problem for the ERG is that Downing Street isn't going to be able to win over Labour MPs who share their commitment to a hard exit, as they have the same objections to the Chequers deal. The only game in town for May is among Labour's most committed pro-Europeans: and the price of their support will be the softest of all possible Brexits. David Davis' resignation could yet make Brexit even more unpalatable to him that it was on Friday.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.