Resignation of Brexit secretary David Davis prompts talk of leadership contest, British general election

By Robert Stevens and Chris Marsden
9 July 2018

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government was left reeling last night after the resignation of Brexit Secretary David Davies was followed by two of his department’s junior ministers.

The resignation comes just some 48 hours after May supposedly secured cabinet support for her plan for a “soft-Brexit”. It has prompted widespread talk of a leadership challenge by hard-line Brexit backbenchers.

Davis wrote in his resignation letter that abiding by collective cabinet responsibility would not “deliver on the mandate of the referendum, and on our manifesto commitment to leave the Customs Union and the Single Market” and that he could no longer function as a “reluctant conscript.”

May’s opponents seized on the resignation to ramp up their ongoing offensive against her adoption of a “soft-Brexit” approach accepting elements of European Union (EU) control to maintain access to the Single European Market.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the European Research Group of Tory backbenchers, said May’s proposals were for “a Brexit in name only”. Friday’s cabinet meeting at the PM’s country house at Chequers was “an attempt to bounce the cabinet” that failed, he said.

A leadership contest can only be triggered if at least 48 MPs send letters to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the powerful backbench 1922 committee.

Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns has said she would “100%” submit a letter “if these red lines were severely watered down and we had one foot in, one foot out.” Andrew Bridgen MP also came out for a contest.

The most damning statement was made anonymously to the Guardian by a “senior pro-Brexit source,” who said, “It’s terminal. We think this is going to lead to a bigger split than Maastricht, on a more serious issue, with a smaller majority, and it’s not Tony Blair that lies on the other side of all of this, it’s [Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn. We think it’s an absolute disaster.”

Fear of triggering a general election is all that continues to hold the Tory party together, such is the depth of the rift over Europe.

A poll was organised by the Independent newspaper returning a majority that a general election must be called if May is forced out so soon after taking over from David Cameron.

Corbyn, who had called for a general election if the government’s Brexit proposals were rejected by the EU in eight months-time, said that May, “has no authority left and is incapable of delivering Brexit. With her Government in chaos, if she clings on, it's clear she's more interested in hanging on for her own sake than serving the people of our country.”

The atmosphere in the Tory Party is febrile, given that May’s open declaration of a “soft-Brexit” stance was in response to massive pressure from business.

She took her convoluted proposal to Chequers with the intention of facing off against hard-Brexit cabinet members including Davis, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State for Environment Michael Gove. However, even amid the threats made to book taxis for anyone disagreeing and talk of May continuing to lead with a party majority of one the acceptance of her proposals was always a pyrrhic victory.

Though not yet following Davis and resigning, Johnson described the agreement as a “big turd” and efforts to sell it to the EU as akin to “polishing a turd.” Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday, Gove said, “If the EU is ungenerous and inflexible, we should be ready to walk away without a deal.”

The White Paper was met with only the most guarded welcome or open disaffection by business figures. Confederation of Industry leader Carolyn Fairbairn, said, “It has taken two years for the UK to agree its position; we now have two months to agree it with Europe.” On Saturday evening, the founders of corporations including Innocent Drinks, Pret a Manger, Waterstones, Zoopla, Net-a-Porter, Domino’s Pizza, Yo! Sushi and Jack Wills signed a letter that the Cabinet agreement would burden businesses with additional costs and demanding full customs union membership.

The plan is a convoluted mess. It outlines a “facilitated customs arrangement” aimed at preventing a hard border in Ireland by creating an UK-EU free trade area with the UK abiding by a “common rule book” of EU regulations. Goods arriving in Britain post-Brexit would attract a UK tariff, set independently of EU rates. British customs officials, in a system yet to be devised, would then collect a potentially higher EU tariff to remit to Brussels on goods passing through the UK on route to the EU’s single market.

The UK has an 80 percent services-based economy, but these are not covered by May’s proposals that will not safeguard the City of London.

The EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier welcomed the agreement, but tweeted, “We will assess proposals to see if they are workable & realistic in view of EUCO [European Commission] guidelines” ahead of further Brexit negotiations over the weekend of July 16. Earlier he had described similar suggestions as “magical thinking.”

The ever-steeper descent of the government into crisis has unleashed frantic efforts to shift the Labour Party towards keeping the UK in the Single Market and Customs Union or, better still, reversing Brexit entirely.

This goal now unites a sizable Blairite faction with leading figures within Momentum, the nominal “left” pressure group that campaigned for Corbyn to be leader of the party. Both have a shared aim in shifting Labour away from its current agreement to a Brexit based on some form of continued customs union that doesn’t imply membership of the Single European Market, to outright opposition to any Brexit deal that does not guarantee full access to the Single European market.

On Saturday, Keir Starmer, Labour’s Shadow Brexit secretary, in a speech to the Labour Business organisation, said that while “[W]e respect and recognise the 2016 referendum result… we believe that any deal should be subject to a meaningful vote in Parliament.”

He added, “We’re not calling for it. We respect the result of the first referendum. But we’re not ruling out a second referendum." This meant in practise that, “Parliament that should decide what happens next, it should have the power to decide the options, and this might involve a general election or a 'People's Vote'."

The call for a “People’s Vote” on any Brexit deal, after a vote in parliament, is the main demand of the newly formed Left against Brexit movement. Initiated by the Another Europe is Possible group, it is led by key figures in Momentum, several Labour MPs and MEPs, the Greens and some trade union leaders.

The campaign was launched in Manchester last Thursday, with another group campaigning for the same outcome—Labour for a People’s vote—launched their campaign in Sheffield the following evening.

While not openly working with the Blairite right-wing led by MP Chukka Umunna, there is nothing politically to distinguish Left against Brexit in their shared concern that business interests will be damaged by loss of access to the Single Market and Customs Union.

Commenting on Starmer’s intervention, a spokesperson for the People's Vote campaign said, "Travel inside the Labour party on this issue is in only one direction. This week [the] Unite [trade union], Labour's biggest affiliate made it clear that a people's vote on the final Brexit deal was a real option for Labour and now the Shadow Cabinet member with policy responsibility for this area appears to be confirming that view. Brexit is a big deal, but it's not a done deal."

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