George Eustice, the Fisheries Minister, has quit the government over Theresa May’s decision to give MPs a vote on extending Article 50 if the withdrawal agreement is rejected by parliament for a second time next month.
Eustice, a moderate Brexiteer, ally of Michael Gove and former press secretary to David Cameron, said that the prime minister’s concession on a dealy to Brexit risked “a sequence of events culminating in the EU dictating the terms of any extension requested and the final humiliation of our country”.
“If the position of Parliament is now that we will refuse to leave without an agreement then we are somewhat stuck,” he told May, arguing that the UK should “reclaim our freedom first and talk afterwards” if necessary. “This is uncomfortable for everyone, but we cannot negotiate a successful Brexit unless we are prepared to walk through the door.”
Ministerial resignations over Brexit are nothing new – this is the sixth this year – but Eustice’s justification for quitting is qualitatively different from those given by hardline Leavers such as Boris Johnson, and ultra-Remainers such as Philip Lee.
Though Eustice, who entered parliament in 2010, is a former Ukipper, he has served loyally as a minister at Defra – where he is well-regarded by civil servants – for nearly six years. He has struck a conciliatory tone throughout the Brexit process and is among those who have said the UK should remain in the EEA as a halfway house solution.
His main disagreement with the government is not with the substance of the deal negotiated by Theresa May – which he says he will continue to support – but with the possibility of a delay.
Given that both Emmanuel Macron and Philip Hammond have made clear in recent days that they believe the point of an Article 50 extension would be to forge a softer Brexit, Eustice’s resignation underlines the fact that many Tories would rather leave with no deal on March 29 than countenance a new deadline. His letter to the prime minister makes explicit an assumption made by many Brexiteers: that the EU would seek to mitigate the impact of a no-deal scenario in such a way as to make it bearable for the UK (with an “informal transition period for nine months in many areas,” as Eustice put it).
Given that only 108 Conservative MPs defied the government’s three-line whip to approve a vote on extending Article 50 last night, Eustice’s resignation does not bring us closer to the defeat of that vote in any meaningful way. But a pattern is starting to form: last night Matt Warman, parliamentary private secretary to Karen Bradley, said he would vote for no-deal and against an Article 50 extension. There will be others like them on the government payroll but nowhere near enough to make a vote for no-deal a live risk. Eustice’s departure, however, does reflect deep and genuine unhappiness across the Tory benches over what exactly extending Article 50 – a process, don’t forget, that will be dictated by the EU – will achieve. Expect a bitter a fight over just how the government should use that extra time.