Why more ministers will abandon Theresa May

Two members of the government have quit in protest at Prime Minister’s decision to enter talks with Jeremy Corbyn and effectively rule out no-deal. An exodus could follow.

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No Brexit compromise between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn is yet in sight, but the mere fact of today’s talks has already lost the government two ministers. Nigel Adams, one of Boris Johnson's few genuine allies in Parliament, quit as a whip and as Wales minister this morning. He has since been followed by his Westminster flatmate, the junior Brexit minister Chris Heaton-Harris. 

Both Adams and Heaton-Harris (the eighth Dexeu minister to quit since 2017) backed Brexit in 2016, but unlike many of their fellow travellers have supported the Prime Minister and her withdrawal agreement until now. With 18 government jobs vacant, they are unlikely to be replaced. Each cites May’s speech last night – in which she appealed for a cross-party compromise and announced her intention to seek a longer extension to Article 50 – as the final straw. 

Adams told the Prime Minister that “you and your cabinet have decided that a deal – cooked up with a Marxist who has never once in his political life put British interests first – Is better than no deal”. Heaton-Harris, meanwhile, said he was opposed to any further delay to Brexit and argued that May’s aversion to no-deal “obviously makes my job in Government irrelevant”.

Their complaints reflect the two biggest gripes Conservative MPs have with last night’s speech. For almost all of them, the mere idea of working with Corbyn, whose status as a pantomime bogeyman is one of the few things that unites the Tories’ warring factions, is anathema – as the steady stream of hostile interventions from the government benches at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions illustrated. 

There is widespread discomfort – and anger – that May could even contemplate such a course of action, regardless of the result. If the process produces anything that so much as smudges any of May’s red lines, we can expect more members of the government payroll to follow.

Then, perhaps more damagingly for what is left of the government, there is the Prime Minister’s revealed preference to avoid, rather than embrace, a no-deal exit. On this she differs from several members of her Cabinet – both Leavers and Remainers – who object to her decision to prioritise a further and potentially long extension to Article 50 over leaving without an agreement. 

It’s notable that two hitherto loyal ministers have already resigned with neither worst case scenario – be it a deal with Corbyn or an extension that stretches beyond 22 May and necessitates European Parliament elections – having materialised. Whatever the end point of the process the Prime Minister set in train last night, more resignations will follow.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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