Although Theresa May managed to unite her MPs briefly on Monday night and put off a customs union confrontation on today’s EU withdrawal bill votes, not everything is going to plan. Philip Lee has this morning broken that truce and resigned as justice minister to fight Brexit. Speaking at a Bright Blue event, Lee said that he was returning to the backbench so that he could speak out on the government’s Brexit policy – which, he says, threatens human rights:
I am incredibly sad to have had to announce my resignation as a minister in Her Majesty’s Government so that I can better speak up for my constituents and country over how Brexit is currently being delivered. Statement to follow shortly on my website.
— Dr Phillip Lee MP (@DrPhillipLeeMP) June 12, 2018
‘Resigning as a minister from the Government is a very difficult decision because it goes against every grain in my soul. The very word resign conveys a sense of giving up, but that is the last thing I will do. I take public service seriously and responsibly. That is the spirit that has always guided me as a doctor and continues to guide me as a politician.
For me, resigning is a last resort – not something that I want to do but something I feel I must do because, for me, such a serious principle is being breached that I would find it hard to live with myself afterwards if I let it pass.’
Now there are a few things worth noting in order to give Lee’s resignation context. Firstly, he has a reputation within government for being outspoken on Brexit. In January, Lee found himself in trouble with Julian Smith – the Chief Whip – after he went off-message and argued that warnings over the economic impact of leaving the European Union could not be ignored. When I sat on an SMF panel with Lee at Tory conference last year, Lee described Brexit as ‘toxic’ to young people and said the snap election meant May no longer had a ‘public mandate’ for a ‘hard Brexit’. Secondly, Lee is also regarded by colleagues as highly ambitious.
It follows that the Conservative MP’s ministerial resignation is not so surprising. But it is still likely to unnerve the Whips’ Office for two reasons. Lee’s rebellion will make today’s ‘meaningful vote amendment’ vote even tighter. Secondly, although on the surface this appears to be an isolated case – someone who has had issues with May’s plans for some time – things like this can change the mood. The points when May’s premiership has looked the most perilous have often come out of nowhere – a late night tweet from an annoyed MP. Momentum can build quickly. It follows that Lee’s resignation is just another reason why this week is pivotal to the government’s Brexit plans.