It took the UK prime minister less than 12 hours to appoint Dominic Raab as the new Brexit secretary after David Davis resigned overnight amid criticism of Theresa May’s new proposals for a deal with the European Union. But the swiftness of the replacement does little to conceal the scale of the schism within her Conservative Party—and the threat to her leadership.
For one thing, Britain could be on the precipice of its third general election in just five years. After all, three of the Brexit department’s five ministers have resigned. Meanwhile, Raab is relatively inexperienced and was only drafted into May’s cabinet in January. He had been seen as a young rising star with leadership ambitions for the Tories and now he’s tasked with taking on the epic challenge of Brexit.
Another general election isn’t a left-field proposition. Current and former politicians have been floating the idea:
Sure, this may seem like standard political tussling from the opposition. But even May’s loyalists seem to be suggesting that she should soon face a leadership challenge. The result of that will make it clear that she no longer has enough votes in parliament to pass the Chequers deal, something May had hoped to do this week. Recent polls also show there is an appetite for a new general election from the public in the event that May is ousted. Bookmakers have even slashed the odds on one being called soon.
In full acknowledgement that she may need the votes of opposition MPs, members of the rival Labour Party have already been offered the chance to attend a briefing on the agreement by May’s senior advisors.
And so after a mere 48 hours of respite, May is back to being held hostage by a rebellious faction of her own party—even if they don’t have the votes to actually see her off. That means that Britain is being led by a prime minister who lacks a parliamentary majority on the most fundamental issue to face the nation in decades.
In any scenario, Davis’s resignation renders the June 6 agreement at Chequers—which saw May’s entire cabinet at least nominally ascent to a “soft” Brexit strategy (paywall)—pointless, considering that the main achievement was one of unity. After months of battling her party’s warring factions, May had seemingly seen off an uprising from the staunchest pro-Brexit ministers and, finally, gotten them to agree to the kind of post-Brexit trading relationship that Britain would seek with the EU.
The Chequers agreement—and the extent to which even ministers like Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson seemed to row in behind it—would also have solidified wider support within the party.
But the directness of Davis’s resignation letter, which told May that it looked “less and less likely” that the party could “deliver on the mandate of the referendum,” and that it would render the control by Britain’s parliament of its own affairs “illusory rather than real,” is a stunning blow.
Raab’s appointment is itself an indication of May’s predicament. He is staunchly in favor of Brexit and, in June, he robustly criticised the Northern Ireland backstop agreement, which saw the UK agree to keeping the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland open indefinitely in the event it can’t come to an agreement with the bloc.
May, however, has got one thing going for her: Nobody else (paywall) has been able to concoct an alternative Brexit plan that seems in any way palatable to the EU. That’s mainly because the plans that the “hard” Brexiters favor would almost certainly result in the imposition of a border in Northern Ireland. Even the strategy agreed at Chequers bears more than a striking resemblance to the “a la carte” proposals that the bloc has consistently rejected.
The only way out of this incessant loop of squabbling may be to go to the polls. But one thing is for sure: Given Davis spent only four hours in talks with his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier, in 2018, he won’t be missed at the negotiating table.