David Davis saved the taxi fare from Chequers by resigning 48 hours after the historic cabinet meeting ended. He also allowed the prime minister to believe for two whole days that she had achieved the remarkable feat of uniting her cabinet behind a new softer Brexit and that her main problem now would be selling it to the EU.
The resignation of her Brexit secretary is a big setback. The divisions in the Conservative Party have been blown open again. No one thought the whole cabinet was happy about the government’s new negotiating position, but it seemed that they accepted it because no one had a realistic alternative.
They still don’t have a realistic alternative, but Davis’s resignation allows the Brexit irreconcilables to think that there must be a better way, even if it means leaving the EU without a deal. That is a prospect that now seems more likely. It has been worrying the prime minister’s advisers from the start. Even after the Chequers meeting, but before Davis’s resignation, a source told me they thought it could happen, “by accident, rather than by design”.
Davis’s departure crystallises the problems ahead. If Theresa May is to get her Brexit deal through parliament in the end, she is going to need the votes of Labour MPs to do so. With a working majority of just 13, the Tory Eurosceptics – Jacob Rees-Mogg, John Redwood, Peter Bone and the others, and now David Davis and his junior former minister Steve Baker – have the numbers to block a deal unless Labour saves it.
That is the kind of unstable situation in which accidents can happen, and we still don’t know whether the EU side will agree to anything like May’s Brexit model.
On the other hand, the prime minister still has some things in her favour. Davis’s resignation had always been part of the planning. She hoped to avoid it and thought she had succeeded, but she expected it and knew it was survivable. Even if Boris Johnson were to follow him, it wouldn’t be the end. In fact, losing her foreign secretary would be easier to shrug off, so diminished has his standing become in the past few months.
With Michael Gove and Liam Fox pledging their loyalty, she must hope to hold the line. And she knows that, even if her opponents gather the 48 names of Tory MPs needed to trigger a vote of confidence in her leadership, she would probably win that vote. Many of her MPs are exasperated with her, but at least she has now come up with a plan for Brexit, and most of them know that the party members would choose a hard Brexiteer as leader.
What struck me about Davis’s letter of resignation was its air of, well, resignation. “It is possible that you are right and I am wrong,” he said. I have never seen a sentiment like that from a departing minister. He rehearsed his disagreements with the prime minister over the past two years, although what was notable about them was that she was right and he was always arguing for the impossible. The UK government had no choice, for example, but to accept the EU’s sequence of negotiations, or there would have been no negotiations at all.
So it may be that Davis’s departure changes little, beyond providing a springboard for the ambitions of Steve Baker, Rees-Mogg’s predecessor as leader of the backbench Tory Eurosceptics, who was last seen when he was sent out by the prime minister to defend her against the soft-Brexit attentions of Dominic Grieve.
Or it may be that, by destabilising the delicate emotional balance in the Tory party, it starts a chain reaction that leads to chaos, misunderstanding and a three-way deadlock between government, parliament and the EU this winter.
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