British Prime Minister Theresa May is scrambling for her political life after a day of high drama that saw three cabinet ministers resign, her Brexit strategy unravel and questions mount about her continued leadership.
The drama started around midnight Sunday with the sudden resignation of David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union who had been leading the government’s Brexit talks with the EU. In a letter to Ms. May, Mr. Davis said he could no longer support her Brexit strategy, calling parts of it “illusory.” Steve Baker, a junior cabinet minister in the Brexit department, quit Monday morning and then hours later Ms. May was dealt an even bigger blow with the resignation of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson sharply criticized Ms. May, saying that under her leadership the U.K. was “headed for the status of colony.”
“Brexit should be about opportunity and hope. It should be a chance to do things differently ... That dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt,” he wrote. “It is as though we are sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above them.”
Mr. Johnson and Mr. Davis were strong Brexit backers and their resignations left Ms. May facing a growing revolt within her Conservative Party caucus, which is bitterly divided between those who favor a hard Brexit and a complete break with the EU, and those who want the country to keep some economic ties to the EU, including remaining in the customs union. Under party rules, 48 of the Conservative’s 317 Members of Parliament can force a vote of confidence in the leader, and there were indications Monday that several MPs have submitted letters calling for a vote. Mr. Johnson is considered a leading candidate to replace Ms. May, although it’s unclear if he would win favor among the majority of MPs who do not support his idea of a hard Brexit.
Ms. May appeared unbowed by the resignations and leadership plots and she told the House of Commons on Monday that her vision of Brexit was realistic. “This is the Brexit that is in our national interest,” she told MPs. “This is the plan that we believe is going to deliver Brexit for the British people.”
The political turmoil comes at a critical time for Ms. May. The U.K. is set to leave the EU next March, and both sides have been locked in negotiations about the terms of the country’s departure and an agreement on the future relationship. The EU has said a deal must be reached by October to give EU member states enough time for ratification.
The customs union has emerged as a key issue in the talks because it allows for the free movement of goods. Under the EU’s customs union there are no tariffs on goods that move among member states but all members must charge the same tariffs on imports from outside the bloc. U.K. business groups have said that remaining in the customs union would give them more certainty and better access to the EU. Staying in the customs union would also ensure that there was no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, something the EU and U.K. have agreed is essential. However, Brexit backers oppose the customs union because it would mean staying aligned to EU regulations and it wouldn’t allow the U.K. to charge its own tariffs or develop its own trade policy.
On Friday, Ms. May thought she’d finally reached a consensus with a plan that included a “customs arrangement.” The plan, which will be fully outlined later this week, would ensure the free flow of goods between the U.K. and the EU but also permit the U.K. to set and collect its own tariffs. The U.K. would collect EU tariffs on goods moving through Britain to the EU, and turn over the money to Brussels, and it would remain largely aligned with EU regulations. Ms. May hailed the plan as a sensible approach to Brexit that fulfilled the country’s objective of leaving the EU without damaging the economy. She also demanded on Friday that all cabinet ministers support the plan or resign.
The consensus began to unravel over the weekend after it was attacked by Tory Brexit backers who criticized the arrangement as virtually no Brexit because it would tie the U.K. to EU regulations. It would also make it harder for the U.K. to strike trade deals with other countries, they argued. Mr. Davis and Mr. Johnson both said that on reflection over the weekend they couldn’t stomach the plan. “As I said then, the government now has a song to sing,” Mr. Johnson wrote in his resignation letter. “The trouble is that I have practised the words over the weekend and find that they stick in the throat.”
Ms. May’s plan “is not really leaving the European Union,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory MP who leads the European Research Group, a collection of MPs that strongly support Brexit. “She has advanced backwards. She has advanced not to have Brexit.” But Ms. May also won strong support from many Tories who backed her vision for a softer Brexit.
Matthew Goodwin, a political science professor at the University of Kent, said Ms. May could face more cabinet resignations as opposition to her plan increases. “The risk facing Prime Minister May is that this now escalates into a full blown revolt,” he said. “There are rumours in Westminster of a domino effect, with more resignations by Euroskeptic ministers hoping to derail May’s ‘soft’ Brexit vision. There is a broader risk here for the governing Conservative Party, namely that this crisis tears open a major and perhaps irreconcilable divide.”
However, other experts said Ms. May could survive the revolt because most Tory MPs support a softer Brexit. Ms. May has also won the backing two other key Brexiteers: Environment Minister Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, who replaced Mr. Davis as Brexit minister.
Mr. Johnson’s appeal has also waned, said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London. “A no confidence vote is more likely but by no means a certainty,” he said. “And Boris will be seen by many Tory MPs as even more of a cowardly, opportunistic [candidate] than he was already – not sure that’s the best basis for a leadership bid.”
Mr. Bale added that the political wrangling has also left the EU wondering about the U.K.’s position. “They perhaps hoped beyond hope that they were going to get some kind of clarity from the British government and now the waters are muddied again. So I think everything really is up in the air at the moment.”