LONDON – U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May was plunged into the worst crisis of the past year after key members of the government quit over her Brexit plan. Her government is in disarray and her leadership in question just nine months before Britain leaves the European Union.
Brexit Secretary David Davis and his deputy, Steve Baker, resigned late on Sunday — just two days after May announced she had secured the backing of her whole Cabinet for a plan to keep close ties to the EU after leaving the bloc.
A replacement will be announced on Monday, May’s office said, and the appointment will offer clues as to her tactics going forward.
“It seems to me we’re giving too much away too easily, and that’s a dangerous strategy at this time,” Davis said on BBC Radio 4 on Monday. In his resignation letter, he said May’s plan to adopt EU regulations for all goods and agri-food products after Brexit “hands control of large swathes of our economy to the EU.”
As the minister responsible for the Brexit negotiations, Davis is a major voice in the debate in the U.K. Though Davis told the BBC that “of course” May can survive his resignation, it still has the potential to derail her government and could embolden pro-Brexit lawmakers to make a move against her.
The pound fluctuated on the news of Davis’s departure.
Davis, Baker and other pro-Brexit members of May’s Conservative Party have deep concerns about her plans for keeping the U.K. tied to EU rules for goods and adopting a close customs arrangement with the other 27 member countries. They say Britain should have a clean break from the bloc and be liberated to pursue new trade deals with other countries, as well as to make its own laws, free from European influence.
In her reply to Davis, May insisted her plan would deliver on the referendum result and the party program from last year’s general election.
“I do not agree with your characterization of the policy we agreed at cabinet,” she said.
The resignations came at a critical and highly sensitive time for May’s strategy, as she seeks to make progress in negotiations with the EU. A divorce agreement is due to be wrapped up in just 15 weeks, but there are still major obstacles to overcome.
She achieved a rare consensus in a key cabinet meeting on the way forward for the negotiations with the EU and told ministers that from now on they had to back her position or resign. That agreement, at her Chequers country retreat, was meant to kick-start talks that have been stalled for months.
On Friday, Davis and fellow Brexit backer Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson both agreed to support May’s proposal for a softer divorce than she had originally planned. As resignations failed to materialize over the weekend — when England was playing in the World Cup — May seemed to have survived the storm.
Johnson’s allies said on Saturday that he decided not to quit because he wanted to remain in the government to fight for the kind of Brexit for which he had campaigned.
The prime minister will have a crunch meeting with members of her Tory party to discuss her plan in Parliament on Monday evening. Some lawmakers have already expressed their misgivings. Johnson will give a news conference later on Monday as part of an international summit.
May has survived crises before, including threatened leadership challenges. Although U.K. politics is volatile, the pro-Brexit camp in Parliament would likely struggle to get the numbers together to win if May decided to stay and fight. John Redwood, a Brexit-backing lawmaker, dismissed talk of a leadership challenge, saying the priority is to get the policy right.
Even so, “there needs to be a rebuilding of trust,” Bernard Jenkin, a pro-Brexit backbench Conservative lawmaker told BBC radio on Monday.
“There’s been a massive hemorrhage of trust over the last few days,” he said. “In all my meetings with the prime minister I never expected this to be the result.”
Even if they succeeded, a new leader would be stuck with the same lack of a parliamentary majority that has forced May to adopt a softer split from the bloc than the one she originally planned.
Over the weekend, May sought to bind Brexit supporting ministers to her proposal as they were sent out to tell the media that they backed it.
Trade Secretary Liam Fox put his name to a newspaper article backing the plan, and Environment Secretary Michael Gove defended the agreement in a TV interview.
But in a sign of the trouble to come, Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group of Tory lawmakers, said May’s plan was “defeatist” and he would oppose it. “If the proposals are as they currently appear, I will vote against them and others may well do the same,” he said in an article for Monday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.