Boris Johnson once promised that the U.K. could “have our cake and eat it” when it came to its departure from the European Union. As he quits his foreign secretary post today, his metaphors have taken a darker turn, describing attempts to sell Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan as “polishing a turd.” Johnson is the third minister to quit in the last 24 hours, threatening to bring down May’s fragile government.
The latest of the government’s seemingly endless series of crises began at an all-day meeting last Friday at Chequers—the prime minister’s country estate, roughly equivalent to Camp David—where May and her Cabinet hammered out an agreement on Britain’s future relationship with the EU after Brexit. It seems like May was the one doing most of the hammering: The prime minister dramatically told her Cabinet that business cards for a local taxi company were available to take them 40 miles back to London if they decided to resign and lose access to their ministerial cars. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that they could just take their ministerial cars back to London, then resign, as Brexit Secretary David Davis, his deputy Steve Baker, and now Johnson did.
What are they so upset about? The government’s new position is much closer to the “soft Brexit” end of the spectrum than Brexit proponents had favored. In fact, it’s most closer than what May herself once seemed to prefer. The three-page position paper published by the government calls for the U.K. and the EU to maintain a “common rulebook for all goods” and commits Britain to “ongoing harmonisation with EU rules on goods,” and to continue to operate “as if” it were within EU customs territory. This would allow Britain to maintain access to the EU common market and avoid the need for border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but to hardliners in May’s Cabinet, this hardly looks like Brexit at all. In his resignation letter, Davis said that a “common rule book” would mean turning over “control of large swathes of our economy to the EU and is certainly not returning control of our laws in any real sense.” Johnson added that under May’s proposal, the U.K. would be “truly headed for the status of a colony” of the EU.
It’s important to remember that the Chequers statement isn’t the actual Brexit deal: That still has to be negotiated with the rest of the EU, and there’s good reason to think Brussels will be skeptical. A number of areas are left intentionally vague, such as how Britain can be de facto part of the EU customs union while being able to control tariffs and set its own trade policy. The statement also skirts the key issue of immigration, saying that Brexit will end the “free movement” of people into the U.K. while also setting up a “mobility framework” to allow U.K. and EU citizens to work in each other’s countries. (A more detailed white paper on the government’s position is due to be released later this week.)
But at the least, the Chequers statement is a more realistic framework for negotiations than Johnson and the Brexiteers’ magical belief that Brussels will be talked into a deal that gives Britain EU market access without any EU regulations.
It’s now possible that conservative MPs could force a vote of no confidence in May. If she lost that vote, which is thought to be fairly unlikely, Johnson could be among the candidates vying to replace her.
May might have been counting on the fact that her job shouldn’t be all that appealing right now: If the Brexiteers ousted her in response to her long-shot negotiating position, they’d quickly find themselves stuck with an even longer-shot negotiating position. But of course, if these people considered the long-term consequences of their short-term political gambits, they might have thought twice about backing Brexit in the first place.