One cannot help but be grateful to Boris Johnson. Just when the flow of the global political tsunami seemed to have reached a normalising ebb, the Foreign Secretary of the UK suddenly resigns. Zac Goldsmith said of Johnson that ‘if he threw himself in front of a bus to save a child, he would still be labelled an opportunist’. That may be true, but his antics make for great entertainment. Ever since the embattled PM Theresa May summoned her cabinet to Chequers to distribute a Brexit plan that Brexit Minister David Davis did not know existed, the Conservative Party has been rattled by mounting crisis. First Davis resigns, then BoJo. They did so because it became clear that Chairman May’s Five Year Plan implied an indefinite stay in the customs union, a diminished ‘Brexit Dividend’ (if such a thing ever existed in the first place) and continued subservience to certain European courts.
It is not quite clear what will happen next. The silence from the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party suggests that Johnson and Davis are regrouping and planning their next move. Expect a manifesto from Theresa May that irons out the inconsistencies in her PMQs session, and a counter-manifesto from Boris Johnson to forebode a leadership campaign. In doing so, we can anticipate full-on gang warfare in the 1922 Committee. One of the kingpins of the backbenches, Jacob Rees-Mogg, controls a 60-strong mob of hardline Brexiteers. As he himself is not a contender for Nr.10, his next moves will be closely watched. A vote of no-confidence is anticipated, but unlikely in the short term – Johnson and his cabal of Eurosceptics were once again stabbed in the back by former firebrand Brexiteer Michael Gove, who has suddenly come out as a staunch supporter of May’s new plan. Clearly he has a good sense of the balance in the party, and has called Boris’ bluff. In the fortnight before parliamentary recess, May holds all the cards.
As for her new plan to untangle the Gordian Knot that is a Brexit ‘that works for everyone’, May has, in essence, settled on a soft Brexit. That is a good thing to the extent that any decision is better than no decision. It is a bad thing in the sense that a soft Brexit is not Brexit – it provides no credible answers to the issues raised by the 2016 Brexit Campaign. Her mission statement is to deliver ‘the Brexit people voted for, but in a way that ensures we protect jobs’. That is just not possible – Brexit is a quid pro quo.
Can you have a sovereign judiciary, a Parliament that answers to no-one, independent economic and immigration policies whilst also being a member of a bureaucratic, supranational economic and political body? No. Can you enjoy the benefits of free movement of capital, whilst denying the free movement of people? No, although many are trying. But the bottom line is that Britain can either maintain economic prosperity in the short-and medium term, or reclaim full national sovereignty. You can’t have both.
The decision to pursue a milquetoast Brexit will define her tenure, and force MPs from all parties to question old loyalties. The cries for regime change are growing louder in the Tory backbenches, but it is still unclear which way the silent Conservative majority will swing when put under enough duress. In the Labour ranks, many a New Labour veteran sees May’s conciliatory deal as the best possible outcome, and may well carry it through the Commons in the form of a Bill – to Corbyn’s chagrin. The Lib-Dems will probably not accept anything less than a second referendum, and thus remain irrelevant.
Forecasting is risky business, and frequently wrong. But one thing is clear – for the first time since May lost her majority, something interesting might finally happen. David Davis and Boris Johnson’s resignations are the most significant departures from Cabinet since Geoffrey Howe left Thatcher’s government in 1990 – a move that heralded her downfall. It remains to be seen whether history does repeat itself.