Britain's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis | TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images
LONDON, July 9: David Davis resigned late Sunday as the U.K.’s Brexit secretary amid ongoing tensions within Prime Minister Theresa May’s Cabinet.
The Brexit secretary’s resignation marks the biggest crisis for the British prime minister since last year’s general election, potentially opening the way for Brexiteers in her own party to try to topple her leadership.
The resignation came amid criticism of the prime minister’s new Brexit plan after the Cabinet on Friday formally endorsed May’s idea for a new “U.K.-EU free trade area” and closely intertwined customs relationship with Brussels which, taken together, will form the backbone of Britain’s future relationship with the EU after Brexit. While some leading Brexiteers in her Cabinet, including Environment Secretary Michael Gove, publicly showed support for May’s plan earlier on Sunday, others, including Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, remained silent.
May now needs the backing of her wider party, which is made more difficult now the Brexit secretary has so categorically rejected her plan. Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Brexit-backing European Research Group of Tory MPs, wrote in the Telegraph Monday that he would vote against the prime minister’s proposed new offer to Brussels. Another pro-Brexit Tory, Andrea Jenkyns, welcomed Davis’ decision, tweeting: “Fantastic news. Well done David Davis for having the principal and guts to resign.”
Davis was swiftly followed out the door by fellow Brexit minister Steve Baker, the minister in charge of planning for a no-deal departure from the European Union. Another minister, Suella Braverman, also resigned, according to Sky News.
Davis, who was appointed to oversee Brexit when May created the Department for Exiting the European Union in July 2016, long felt cut out of negotiations with Brussels by the prime minister and her chief EU adviser Oliver Robbins. The Brexit secretary held just four hours of talks this year with his counterpart in Brussels, Michel Barnier, according to the FT.
In his resignation letter to May, Davis wrote that “As you know there have been a significant number of occasions in the last year or so on which I have disagreed with the No. 10 policy line.”
He said he continued to move forward because he “considered it was still possible to deliver on the mandate of the referendum,” but added: “I am afraid that I think the current trend of policy and tactics is making that look less and less likely.”
“This is a principled and honest decision which he believes is in the national interest,” said a close ally of Davis. “He couldn’t sell a policy he fundamentally thought was wrong for our country. He made his case … and accepted reluctantly that he couldn’t go on when the decision went against him.”
Davis said in his resignation letter that “the general direction of policy will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one,” and that Friday’s Cabinet decision “crystallised this problem.”
“I am also unpersuaded that our negotiating approach will not just lead to further demands for concessions,” he added.
“Of course this is a complex area of judgement and it is possible that you are right and I am wrong. However, even in that event it seems to me that the national interest requires a secretary of state in my department that is an enthusiastic believer in your approach, and not merely a reluctant conscript.”
May responded in her own letter, saying she was “sorry” to see him resign after the government had “already made so much progress.”
She also reiterated that she believed the Friday agreement was consistent with the “mandate” of the Brexit referendum, saying she disagreed with his characterization of the plan.
“I am sorry that the government will not have the benefit of your continued expertise and counsel as we secure this deal and complete the process of leaving the EU, but I would like to thank you warmly for everything you have done over the past two years.”