It was always going to be a difficult week for Theresa May. Never mind the fiddly business of selling her Chequers plan to the Conservative backbenches, there’s a death from Novichok poisoning to deal with; a highly charged NATO meeting to attend; and the Western Balkans Summit to host. Oh, and the small business of President Trump’s much anticipated visit to the UK to contend with too.
The news late last night that not just David Davis, but two of his junior ministers – Steve Baker and Suella Braverman – were indeed walking out on the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) could not then have come at a worse time. But what are the ramifications?
For Theresa May, much depends on how the Conservative Party responds to the resignations. Whilst the usual hardline suspects have chirped up and welcomed them as a defiant stand, it remains unlikely that other Brexit-backing Cabinet ministers, including Johnson, Fox, Leadsom, McVey and Grayling, will go too. All of them signed up to the Chequers deal on Friday (as did David Davis, of course).
A lot will also ride on who, if anyone, replaces Davis at DExEU. Whilst David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy, would be the most sensible option – he knows this brief better than anyone, having served as David Cameron’s Europe minister for six years, with his recent stint at the Cabinet Office meaning he’s been involved in the sharp end of the negotiations for some time – his closeness to May, and his Remainer credentials, might set internal hares running. Having come out fighting her corner on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Michael Gove seems a more likely option.
Both Steve Baker and Suella Breverman will also have to be replaced. The former is a genuine loss; Baker had done a lot of the hard graft behind the scenes, particularly on the EU (Withdrawal) Act, and had the rare quality of not only being liked, but more importantly, trusted, by MPs on both sides of the Brexit divide.
For David Davis, it’s hard to see how he can fully recover from this. Many Brexiteers held him up as their man on the inside, someone trusted with protecting the vision of a “true” Brexit. Having cried wolf and threatened to resign five times over the past seven months, walking away now, so late into the negotiations (effectively washing his hands of everything else the Government has to deal with), leaves him with very little credibility.
True, his role at DExEU had become little more than that of a mascot, routinely wheeled out for the odd press conference with Michel Barnier, but what did he expect? Having preached about the benefits of Brexit his entire career, after two years in the job he hadn’t come up with any of the goods. It was inevitable that decisions were going to be taken over his head.
Or maybe that’s just it. Whilst some will say his resignation was a principled act forced upon him by an obstinate Prime Minister intent of the softest of soft Brexits, perhaps the dawning realisation that his vision of a Britain unshackled from the EU wouldn’t reconcile with reality was enough for him to abandon ship. A good workman never blames his tools, eh DD?