Why Monday night’s ministerial resignations matter

Theresa May has lost control not just of the parliamentary process, but her party.


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Three Conservative ministers have resigned from the government in order to vote to give Parliament control of the Brexit process. 

Richard Harrington, the Business Minister, Alistair Burt, the Middle East Minister, and Steve Brine, the Health Minister, all quit their posts to back plans for a series of indicative votes on solutions to the Brexit impasse, which will be held on Wednesday. 

The departure of Harrington, who has been publicly threatening to resign over the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, is no surprise. He was, however, one of May’s earliest supporters and served as treasurer for her leadership bid in 2016. That he has quit her government in such spectacular fashion – accusing her of “playing roulette” with the lives of the British people – is a mark of how far the prime minister’s stock has fallen. 

But the resignations of Burt and Brine (another 2016 backer of May) speak to the profound crisis of confidence and trust in Theresa May among Conservative MPs, including those who have hitherto been ultra-loyal. 

While it has been clear for some time that neither was entirely comfortable with the government's direction of travel on Brexit, both Brine and Burt, who were considered effective, conscientious ministers by colleagues, desisted from the sort of on-the-record attacks on May's Brexit policy that had become Harrington’s stock in trade. 

Taken together with the record scale of tonight's Conservative rebellion, their resignations underline the extent to which May has lost control not merely over parliamentary process, but her party. The difficulty she will have filling these three vacancies – which beef up a long list of government jobs left vacant by Brexit resignations – reflect the fact that Downing Street can no longer truly be said to be in power over any of the institutions any executive should ordinarily expect to be.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.