‘Like Polishing a Turd’: British Government’s Brexit Strategy May Collapse as Boris Resigns By Stephen Barber
Last Friday, Theresa May thought she had pulled a political master stroke. Having held her Cabinet and party together for the best part of two years by avoiding defining Britain’s preferred Brexit outcome, she gathered her senior Ministers in Chequers, confiscated their phones and made them sign up to a new plan.
The plan represented a victory for the so-called ‘sensibles’ in the Cabinet: those that accepted the outcome of the referendum but who wished to maintain the closest possible economic ties with the EU. For a time it held. No Minister resigned during the away day (the threat apparently was that they would walk back home as Ministerial cars would be removed instantly) and several pro-Leave Ministers trickled out to proclaim their support for the Prime Minister. Maybe they were waiting until after the England football match on Saturday. But that passed without event.
The Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reportedly described the plan as being like ‘polishing a turd’ but also let it be known that he was staying put to express his views inside government. And then, late on Sunday the Brexit Secretary , the man responsible for negotiating with Brussels, David Davis resigned on a matter of principle. Fifteen hours later, having tested the mood in his party, Boris quit too describing May’s strategy as turning Britain ‘into a colony’ of the EU.
The Brexit strategy, which seemed for a couple of days to have a certainty absent from the last couple of years, has been thrown into turmoil. And with it, the prime minister’s leadership which now faces the possibility (if not yet quite the probability) of an early challenge. The truth is that May cannot satisfy both wings of her party at once.
For the hardliners, Brexit means a clean break, Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal. Many former Remainers on the other hand do not want Britain to leave at all, content, it seems, to agree a soft Brexit along the lines of the Norway model. But none believe in principle in the PM’s plan. Apart from anything else, soft Brexit means protecting Britain’s economic interests but giving up its political voice. The UK would undoubtedly be better off staying in.
Any new leader -whether that be Boris himself, Jacob Rees-Mogg, or a more sensible candidate like David Gauke or Jeremy Hunt – would surely have to call a general election soon. And parties this split rarely win them. It would not be simple to win a clear mandate from the people for a fresh Brexit policy. And don’t forget that time is ticking: Britain is meant to be out of the EU by next April. If the opposition Labour party had its act together with credible leadership, it might expect to be in a commanding position. Alas it is almost as split as the Conservatives, meaning that an alternative to Brexit is illusory.
Perhaps all this makes the much debated second referendum more likely. What is clear today is that the government’s Brexit strategy is in tatters. She might have got rid of two of her biggest critics but it is difficult to think this government can limp on very much longer. And Theresa May’s days as PM have shortened.
Stephen Barber is Director of MBA at the University of Bedfordshire @StephenBarberUK