The Prime Minister has shrugged off the double resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson – the question is, is this the new beginning, or the beginning of the end? The next 72 hours will tell, writes Alec Marsh
Considering the shock resignation of Boris Johnson, announced barely half an hour before the Prime Minister was due to stand up in the Commons to give MPs a much needed update on the Chequers’ proposals, Theresa May looked rather composed.
That it followed hot on the heels of the minutes-to-midnight resignation of her ‘dumbfounded’ former Brexit Secretary, David Davis, did not seem to discombobulate her. Not in the least.
Rather, she opened her Brexit statement with a tribute to the work of both men (or more correctly in the case of Mr Johnson, his ‘passion’) and thanked them for helping to deliver Brexit thus far over the last two years – greeted by laughter in the house. And what do you know, for the first time in ages, Mrs May actually looked like she was enjoying herself.
Perhaps, the self-purging of what Sir Vince Cable called the ‘Brexit fundamentalists’ from the Cabinet was just what the doctor ordered for the beleaguered PM? But not all the Brexiters have gone, have they?
As May spoke she was watched keenly by the Trade Secretary Liam Fox, as ardent a Brexiter as they come. And for all the apparent failings of the Chequers’ plan and talk of it scuppering hopes of a US-UK trade deal, Dr Fox still appears to be well inside the tent.
Then – among other Cabinet Brexit-supporters, there’s Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, who watched closely, albeit not from the front-benches, as Mrs May gave her statement. He went out to bat for the Prime Minister on Sunday and is clearly intent on staying put.
Which makes you think: having efficiently replaced Davis with the next-generation Tory former Housing Minister, the well-respected Brexiteer Dominic Raab; the sense is that it’ll be just a few hours before Johnson has been replaced, too. Could this be Mrs May’s actual first stab at creating a Cabinet more resembling one of her own choosing?
For having been guided by the political realities and side-agreements necessitated by the post-referendum party leadership campaign back in 2016, and then battered by the fallout of the disastrous election of 2017, might these departures now offer May the moment she’s been looking for to take some of the ideological heat out of the Cabinet? Furthermore, it might give her the chance to replace it with some much needed talent. Perhaps a Tom Tugendhat, the respected chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee or Rory Stewart, the Prisons Minister late of the Foreign Office and a big thinker, might bring more weight to the top tier of government?
The next 72 hours will tell: it is rumoured that Johnson’s departure is part of a coordinated campaign to force the Prime Minister to alter her Chequers’ plans, which will be followed by other resignations and ultimately culminate, logically, in a full-scale leadership plot if she fails to bend to Brexiteer pressure.
But the truth will come out, perhaps quickly: Mrs May is due to meet Conservative MPs and peers tonight and while Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the hard-Brexit 60-strong European Research Group, is not currently urging his followers to support a leadership challenge, you never know. Things do change. Only the other day Boris was tweeting in support of Rees-Mogg after he had been slapped down for threatening a revolt against May, describing him as a ‘principled and dedicated MP who wants the best for our country’. Over the weekend however Boris was prepared to polish the ‘turd’ of the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan before changing his mind today.
We will see. For now, Mrs May is looking assured, certainly if her Commons performance is anything to go by, and she has the chance to create a Cabinet that perhaps better reflects the 52-48 per cent outcome of the referendum result, even if it’s in spite of her party’s Brexit rump. It won’t be easy but if Brexit means anything it’s that.
Alec Marsh is editor of Spear’s