Theresa May’s government suffered a string of bombshell resignations over Brexit Thursday — including the minister in charge of overseeing Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab quit, saying he “cannot in good conscience” support the draft deal with the EU May brought to her Cabinet Wednesday.
Esther McVey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, followed suit an hour later, while two junior ministers, Suella Braverman and Shailesh Vara, also quit.
The shock resignations left May’s Tory government in turmoil, amid growing doubts her agreement can win the backing of enough MPs to pass through Parliament next month. May's grip on power is also in jeopardy, as one high-profile Conservative MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, called Thursday afternoon for a no-confidence vote in her leadership.
May battled to sell her Brexit plan to sceptical politicians in the House of Commons shortly after Raab stepped down. MPs broke out in laughter and heckled her with calls to resign as she claimed her proposal would let Britain leave the EU “in a smooth and orderly way” on March 29.
Why did they resign?
Raab was a central figure in Brexit negotiations with the EU, and was involved in drafting the 585-page agreement that May put to her Cabinet for approval Wednesday. Yet a day later he said he couldn’t back the document he’d help craft, citing issues with the customs backstop arrangement intended to solve the thorny issue of the Irish border.
To avoid imposing a hard border with physical checks for goods and services between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which belongs to the European Union, May’s deal proposes a “backstop.” That would see Britain and the EU establishing a single customs territory until new arrangements are reached.
What’s wrong with a “backstop”?
Critics have objected, saying if no new arrangements are reached Britain will be tied to the EU indefinitely, undercutting the whole point of Brexit. Plus, any agreement to end the backstop would need to be agreed by both Britain and the EU, giving the Europeans an upper hand in future negotiations.
“No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime, imposed externally without any democratic control over the laws to be applied, nor the ability to exit the arrangement,” Raab wrote in his resignation letter.
“I cannot support an indefinite backstop arrangement where the EU holds a veto over our ability to exit.”
McVey also cited the customs arrangement in her resignation letter, saying May’s proposed deal “does not honour” the result of the 2016 referendum in which the British public voted to leave the EU.
What does it mean for Theresa May?
The PM struck a defiant tone in Parliament Thursday, urging lawmakers to back her proposal, or risk Brexit never happening, or the UK crashing out of the EU next year without any deal in place.
“The choice is clear. We can choose to leave with no deal, we can risk no Brexit at all, or we can choose to unite and support the best deal that can be negotiated,” she said.
But the flurry of resignations have weakened her grip on power, as she faces emboldened ranks of hardline Brexiters who hate the current deal.
Can she be ousted?
Absolutely. The defections will only fuel the speculation that May could face a vote of no-confidence, which is triggered if 48 of the party’s lawmakers call for one. In a press conference Thursday, Rees-Mogg began that process, announcing he was requesting a no-confidence vote in her leadership.
If the vote proceeds, which could happen as early as Tuesday, May will be ousted if 158 of her 315 MPs vote against her.
Raab had only held the role of Brexit Secretary since July, taking over after his predecessor, David Davis, also resigned over May’s direction on Brexit.
Boris Johnson, a hardline Brexiter who has made no secret of his prime ministerial ambitions, resigned as foreign secretary at the same time.
Conservative MP Anna Soubry tweeted Thursday that Raab’s departure marked “the end of PM’s withdrawal agreement.”
“This is v serious, the PM will clearly be considering her position,” she wrote.
What does it mean for Brexit?
May has been pushing to get her deal approved by Parliament — where her government doesn’t command a majority — before Britain officially leaves the bloc on March 29, 2019. If a deal isn’t agreed before that date, Britain faces a so-called “no-deal Brexit,” predicted to have painful economic consequences.
Hardline Brexiters within her party have said they will vote down the proposal when it comes before Parliament next month. And on Thursday, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn attacked the draft agreement, describing it as “a huge and damaging failure” by a government “in chaos.”
“The government simply cannot put to Parliament this half-baked deal that both the Brexit Secretary and his predecessor have rejected,” he said.
And the Europeans watching on?
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said Thursday that the resignations had increased the chances that draft deal wouldn’t be ratified by Parliament.
"Nothing allows us to say at this stage that the agreement will ultimately be adopted,” he said. “We need to prepare ourselves for a no-deal Brexit.”
Cover image: A still image from video footage shows Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaking about Brexit, in the House of Commons, in central London, Britain November 15, 2018. (Parbul TV/Handout via Reuters)