In the space of 24 hours David Davis and Boris Johnson resigned from Theresa May’s government. Why?
The loss of two of the most senior ministers in her government constitutes a serious blow to May’s already dented authority. Cabinet ministers rarely resign without good reason, and quite often the reason is that they are being forced out for some failure, either personal or professional. Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd tried to cling on for a week until it became clear she could stay in post no longer.
So, you would assume that Davis and Johnson’s motivations for giving up – respectively – the positions of Brexit Secretary and Foreign Secretary would be strong ones.
Davis Davis’ reasons for leaving are more clear cut than Johnson. Davis is a life-long critic of the EU; what used to be called a ‘Eurosceptic’, until the vote to leave the EU in 2016, after which such people became ‘Leavers’ or ‘Brexiteers’. At the weekend May brought all her cabinet to Chequers (the PM’s official country residence) in an attempt bring her fractious government in line behind an agreed negotiating position to put to the EU. Cabinet ministers reportedly had to surrender their advisers as well as their mobile phones, such was the discipline imposed by May. It appeared at first that she had succeeded in re-imposing her authority on the government, but this impression lasted barely a day.
Davis could not sign himself up to the principle of having a ‘common rule book’ with the EU. This idea – which forms part of the so-called ‘Chequers’ proposal – is meant to facilitate trade between the EU and the UK in a similar way to the currently existing Single Market, where rules and standards are harmonised across the EU. Business leaders have been putting pressure on May to provide some direction on how trade will operate post-exit; they are worried about possible negative consequences of increased customs and border checks. Chequers was an attempt to deal pragmatically with this concern. Davis – and others like Jacob Rees Mogg – see this as a betrayal of the idea of Brexit. They argue that having a common rule book will mean just accepting EU rules and the authority of the European Court of Justice; the opposite of ‘taking back control’. So Davis walked.
Boris Johnson followed Davis hours later, saying in his letter of resignation that the ‘Brexit dream is dying’. On the surface Johnson – though a late convert to the idea of leaving the EU – was resigning in protest at the undermining of his vision for the country.
Few were convinced by this reading though. For one thing Johnson is far from the most principled politician. In just the last few weeks he broke a ‘vow’ he made to his electors in Richmond that he would “lie down in front of the bulldozers” if the airport at Heathrow (located right by the area of London Johnson represents) was extended. When a vote on the issue came up in parliament Johnson found he suddenly had to be on the other side of the world for 12 hours. Voting against the government would have meant resigning which, at that point, he was not prepared to do.
So was Johnson just resigning out of political ambition? If he had signed up to Chequers then it would have meant halting his constant undermining of his Prime Minister and jockeying for position. It is no secret that Boris yearns to be PM himself one day. Toeing the line would not have suited him, and harmed his chances of fulfilling his ambitions to get the big job.
I don’t doubt Boris Johnson’s limitless capacity for self-promotion, nor his political capriciousness. The true reason he resigned is somewhat more complex and, interestingly, beyond the control of Johnson himself.
The contradictions of Brexit
The referendum in June 2016 asked a simple question: would voters prefer to remain in the EU, or leave?
This seems a straightforward choice on the surface, but they way it was formulated was flawed and based on the political assumptions of the time. It was thought that people would naturally stick with the status quo, and in a binary choice the public’s natural conservatism would triumph. Furthermore, then Prime Minister David Cameron assumed that ‘Remain’ would win so there was no need to think through the manner in which the UK would extricate itself from the EU.
Once the vote was over, those questions became instantly and alarming live. Would the UK leave the Single Market? Or leave the Customs Union? Would fees owing to the EU be honoured? Finally, it also dawned on politicians that the situation with the Eire-Northern Irish border was going to be significant stumbling block to leaving.
It is only now, more than two years after the vote, and with less than four months before negotiations must be concluded that some of these issues are being addressed. Most commentators assume that May has found it difficult to find agreed answers to these conundrums because her cabinet is evenly split between former Remainers and Leavers. The Leave side have benefited from this interpretation because it has enabled them to shift blame for the lack of progress onto her. In fact the fault is their’s, or more accurately the fault of the Brexit project in general.
It is now clear that leaving the EU will cause significant harm to the UK, politically and economically. Much British industry relies on being closely integrated into the EU trading bloc. Multi-nationals based here value the role of the UK as a staging post to the Single Market. The UK isn’t going to be able to negotiate trade deals with superpowers on a equal footing. The regulations of the EU were actually responsible for improvements in the quality of life in the UK.
These increasingly obvious realities run directly counter to the rhetoric of the Brexiteers, both before and after the referendum. Take back control? Not if the UK is at the mercy of the US in negotiating a one-sided trade deal. Full sovereignty for parliament? Not if we still have to agree to EU rules, to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland.
Johnson resigned, not because the “dream” was dying, but because in the real world dreams don’t cut it. Brexit was, and always will be, a nationalistic, imperialistic nostalgia trip; a political programme for people who yearn for a time when Brtiannia ruled the waves and thumbed its nose at meddling Europeans.
The inherent, internal contradictions of Brexit have done for Davis and Johnson. The currents of geopolitics are a hard tide to swim against. Eventually they will sink May and all other supporters of this rotten political fantasy.