The joke doing the rounds in advance of President Trump’s visit to the U.K. on Friday is that there will be no senior politicians left to greet him. In the last 48 hours, three senior and several junior politicians have resigned, over Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for Brexit.
Over the last two years, since the British people voted by a small majority to leave the European Union in the so-called Brexit referendum, the country has watched and waited with a mixture of hope, dread and apathy, depending on where one stands politically. However, not since the initial result and the resignation of PM David Cameron the next day, has there been such an exciting few days in the saga.
Last Friday, Mrs. May held a well-publicized summit in Chequers, the Prime Minister’s official country home. Variously billed as a sleepover or a lock-in, it was made very clear that it was a case of “my way or the highway.” Mrs. May set out her plans for a Brexit deal, and insisted that her Cabinet agreed to it, and resumed their policy of “collective responsibility.” In other words, there would be no dissenters and all the ministers would be expected to work together to implement the plan.
The first casualty, unsurprisingly, was the Brexit Secretary David Davis, who handed in his resignation on Sunday. A staunch Leave supporter, he famously said, on taking the job, “I don’t have to be very clever. I don’t have to know that much. I do just have to be calm.” Now, however, his calm seems to have deserted him, as he described his position on Mrs. May’s plans in his resignation letter, as being that of “a reluctant conscript.”
Mr. Davis was followed immediately by his deputy, Steve Baker, the Brexit Minister. Political pundits say that despite their relative job titles, Mr. Baker’s resignation was actually a worse blow to the PM than Mr. Davis’. Mr. Baker was apparently one of the key players in rallying Eurosceptic MPs into a force to be reckoned with and there is a concern that he will now use his influence and charisma to marshal opposition to Mrs. May, including a potential vote of no confidence in her from within the ranks of the Conservative Party.
Were that to happen, an obvious contender for leader of the Party, and possibly then Prime Minister, is Boris Johnson, who resigned as Foreign Secretary on Monday. Mr. Johnson is a colorful and outspoken character, who was one of the main public campaigners for Brexit. While he was generally popular as the Mayor of London, his return to Parliamentary politics, and specifically his support of Brexit, has made him one of the most controversial and, in many circles, widely disliked, politicians in the country. His appointment two years ago as Foreign Secretary was greeted with disbelief by many people, given his past lack of diplomacy. During his tenure, the role, one of the great offices of state, was somewhat downgraded, possibly to prevent further embarrassment. However, sources in the Foreign Office speak highly of him, despite his public persona, even if they disagree with his political opinions. He stood in the previous Conservative leadership contest, but was one of those who withdrew his candidacy before a vote, enabling Mrs. May to take the position as ‘the last man standing.’ In an era of increasingly non-descript and interchangeable politicians, Mr. Johnson certainly stands out.
The resignations continued on Tuesday, with two of the eight vice-chairs of the Conservative Party timing their departure well and quitting just before Mrs. May was due to give a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Mrs. May has acted swiftly to replace the ministers with new people who she presumably hopes will be personally loyal and supportive of her Brexit plans. But it is noticeable that she is now having to turn to Remain supporters to fill the posts, in an attempt to keep the Cabinet under control. She is also reportedly resorting to the threat that disunity will threaten the Government and allow Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn a smooth ride into power.
When Mr. Trump suggests that of his three significant meetings in Europe next week, the summit with President Putin might be “the easiest of them all,” then we know that British politics really is in the state of “turmoil” that he suggested.