“Polishing a turd.” That was the lofty expression used by Boris Johnson, the trained classicist, to describe the preliminary agreement laboriously worked out by Theresa May regarding the line to be upheld in the Brexit negotiations with the EU, after a marathon cabinet meeting last Friday at Chequers, the 16th century summer residence of the prime minister. On Monday, Johnson handed in his resignation as Foreign Minister.
Johnson, known for such elevated rhetoric, has been a clear ringleader, together with Environment Minister Michael Gove, of the pro-Brexit faction of the Conservative Party. Both ended up in May’s cabinet to ensure the delicate balance of influences and interests on which the Prime Minister has been performing her balancing act for months. The departure of “Boris”, always a contender for the role of leader of the party and the country and a permanent thorn in the side of the actual leader in power, was preceded—and apparently triggered—by the resignation of the Brexit Secretary himself, David Davis, and that of his deputy Steve Baker.
Davis, a prominent standard-bearer of “global Britain”—the notion that, once free from the EU’s restraints, the UK will enter into flourishing commercial relations with the rest of the world—was promptly replaced by Eurosceptic former Housing Minister Dominic Raab. Who will sit behind Johnson’s desk at the Foreign Office is still unknown. But if Davis’s departure is a problem for May, Johnson’s is more a blessing than a curse: this could be seen by the dry and boilerplate acceptance of his resignation from Downing Street, with the news leaking out before the Minister could even finish his official letter of resignation, addressed to May personally.
A politician who went all in for political careerism and ostentatious displays of implementing the mandate of the Brexit referendum (a bandwagon he managed to jump on just as it was leaving: his decision at the last minute to support Brexit certainly had an effect on the final result, given his popularity), Johnson’s fortunes seem to have faded, now seen as little more than a brilliant entertainer by his own party. The one who has taken up his mantle in the defense of national pride is now Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tory who looks like he came straight out of a silent newsreel from a century ago, left as the consummate leader of the hardline Brexiters. The latest polls by YouGov show him ahead of Johnson in voters’ preferences for the future leader of the party.
What caused this latest wave of resignations from May’s government—which only has minority support in Parliament, and only exists thanks to the votes of the unionists of Northern Ireland’s DUP—was the discontent about the compromise she reached, with great difficulty, with her own government, divided into factions for and against a so-called hard Brexit. Her compromise attempts to map out an impossible “third way” between exiting the customs union and the European common market (insistently called for by the Eurosceptic right) and the concerns coming from the business world, frozen for months in a frustrating limbo that is preventing them from planning their investments. After hours of feverish negotiations in oak-paneled rooms sweltering under a veritably Mediterranean sun, May had emerged victorious from the internal negotiations in her party that had started two years ago, on the matter of how and what to negotiate with Brussels before the deadline coming up in March, the date on which the relationship between the country and the EU must take on a new form. But the chance that Brussels will accommodate her carefully balanced tightrope act—which would now propose a way to remain in the single market for goods and agricultural products, while not respecting any of the other freedoms (the movement of persons, services and capital)—seems to be zero.
At any other time, losing two similarly-aligned members of a cabinet at once would have likely opened the door for a full-on assault on the leadership from the hard-Brexiteers. But May still looks like she will stay on in power, and she might even come out stronger. Despite the ministers heading for the exits, May continues to draw support from the same Eurosceptic faction, which is content with what it can get at this point. They don’t have the votes in Parliament to oust her, and the risk of early elections, which might deliver the country over to Corbyn’s Labour, is—predictably—a scenario which can make even the most fanatical isolationist blanche.
In the House of Commons, this latest one in the series of surprise moves sending shockwaves through the “majority” galvanized Jeremy Corbyn, who is usually magnanimous with his opponents when they suffer public defeat. In a devastating attack on the ex-Foreign Minister, he even got roars of laughter from the Labour side when he speculated about how the two ministers would have already decided to resign at the Friday cabinet meeting in Buckinghamshire: “I’m sure they would have resigned on the spot on Friday, but they were faced with a very long walk, no phone, and, due to government cuts, no bus service either, so they were probably wise to hold on for a few days so at least he could get a lift home,” saying in effect that their official cars were the only thing still tying them to the government.
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