The government of Theresa May has been thrown into turmoil 24 hours after the British Prime Minister’s announcement that “any deal on Brexit is better than no deal”. That essay towards a halfway-house shall not work after Thursday’s resignations of the Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, and the work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey.
This is not to ignore the resignations of the junior Northern Ireland minister, Shailesh Vara, and another junior minister, Suella Braverman, believed to be a hardline Brexiteer. They have been remarkably forthright in their prognosis ~ the government had failed to “honour the result” of the referendum and Mrs May had crossed her own “red lines” for leaving Brexit.
The serial resignations have come as a severe jolt to Whitehall and the probability of a no-confidence motion from the Tory backbenchers in the House of Commons cannot readily be ruled out. The resignations per se are an expression of no-confidence. The Prime Minister’s plan of action will have to be endorsed by the Commons, after all.
In his resignation letter Raab said the proposed arrangement to avoid a border with Northern Ireland through a backstop arrangement is a “very real threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom”. Similar sentiments have been echoed by the other ministers who have put in their papers. In a word, Brexit has split the cabinet and it is a daunting challenge that Mrs May will now have to countenance.
The discord and confusion over Brexit is bound to linger. Mrs May was acutely aware when she made the announcement that the formula of “any deal is better than no deal” couldn’t possibly be unanimous. She can, however, claim to have had her way on certain critical economic issues. Notably, the “Customs backstop” will apply to the UK as a whole rather than only to Northern Ireland.
This is quite a gain in the context of the EU’s demand for a “backstop to the backstop”, which would have created a Customs border in the Irish Sea. Misgivings that Northern Ireland might oppose the agreement are not wholly unfounded because it will have to follow single market rules more closely than the rest of the UK.
In terms of constitutional history, Britain is at the threshold of an uncertain phase. The resignations reaffirm that the Prime Minister’s formula lacks cabinet endorsement. There are fears that she does face the risk of a humiliating defeat in the Commons. No Prime Minister can take the UK out of EU without a deal against the will of Parliament.
MPs have the power and the numbers to forestall such a calamitous exit. There is a wider choice before the Commons, indeed to ascertain from the people whether they now want a “Final Say” referendum. In retrospect, the exercise on 23 June 2016 must be reckoned to be tentative. More accurately, there is little or nothing to choose between a “bad deal” and a “no-deal”. Voters do deserve a choice on the final Brexit deal.