Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have both resigned from the Government, after Theresa May presented her negotiating position to the cabinet at Chequers over the weekend.
In a statement released after the meeting, the Government had proposed that the UK maintain a common rulebook with the EU for goods, which comprise 20% of the UK economy. It also proposed that whilst an independent arbiter would settle disputes on standards, the European Court of Justice would retain its role as the primary interpreter of EU law.
The proposal also called for a ‘Facilitated Customs Arrangement’ which would involve the British Government applying UK tariffs to goods destined for the UK, and EU tariffs for goods destined for the EU, so that the UK could remain in a combined customs territory with the EU. This would honour the Government’s commitment to avoiding a hard border between Northern and Southern Ireland, whilst still allowing the UK to control trade policy for the rest of the world.
David Davis, in his resignation letter, had told Theresa May that, as he believed that the government’s negotiating position already gave parliament a control that was ‘illusory rather than real’, to say nothing of further concessions over the course of negotiations, he felt he would be unable to continue in his role advocating the position to the EU and parliament. He has since been replaced by Dominic Raab, a high profile Brexiteer who nevertheless has been willing to endorse Theresa May’s Brexit position.
The changes in personnel are likely to have major implications for the final relationship between the EU and the UK after Brexit. In the short term, it is increasingly likely that Theresa May will face a confidence vote in her leadership, which can be triggered anonymously by just 15%, or 48, Conservative MPs. Whilst it is likely that the PM has the support to survive a confidence vote, it would represent a serious blow to her already limited political authority.
In the long term, the parliamentary arithmetic involved in passing the final Brexit deal has become much more complicated. With a working majority of just 13 votes, just seven rebels are required to defeat the government on a vote in the commons. Whilst the ‘Hard Brexit’ faction of MPs represent a minority of the Conservative party, they are numerous enough to defeat the government with the support of opposition parties. If the commons rejects the deal between the UK and EU, the likely hood of the UK being ejected from the EU in March 2019 without a deal, and a constitutional and economic crisis, becomes much greater.
Conversely, if the UK government were to rely on the support of pro-EU Labour MPs and other opposition parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, the price of that support would likely be a much ‘softer’ Brexit. This may involve full membership of the customs union and single market, a relationship commonly referred to as the ‘Norway Model’.
Regardless of the votes needed for the final deal, Theresa May will still need to present a working proposal for Brexit to the EU in October. It remains to be seen how or if these resignations will alter the government’s negotiating position.