Theresa May had nearly got to the end of the working day with no resignations. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Two Tory vice-chairs – Ben Bradley and Maria Caulfield – have handed in their respective resignations over the Prime Minister’s Chequers proposals. What will worry No 10 is not that they now need to find a Tory vice-chair for young people and another for women – that will be possible and they may well come with fewer issues than these two. Instead, what will ring alarm bells is that neither can be described as an ardent Brexiteer.
Bradley was a Remain-er in the EU referendum but represents a Leave seat. In contrast, Caulfield is a Brexiteer who represents a Remain constituency. Their decision to go suggests that the unease within the party over the softening of the government’s Brexit position goes well beyond the usual suspects – Bill Cash, Bernard Jenkin and Peter Bone. The number of Tory MPs who eventually decide they can’t back Theresa May’s compromise deal will be sizeable – with May’s allies already predicting it could be around the 70 mark.
There’s also an indication that this is part of a tactic by the Brexiteers – to keep a drip supply of resignations up so May is continually under pressure. During the EU referendum campaign, Steve Baker – who quit the frontbench on Sunday – said he was deployed by Vote Leave as a ‘flying monkey’ to turn up the ‘pressure on David Cameron’ in the Commons. This could signal a return to these Guerrilla tactics.
In their separate resignation letters, both point the finger of blame for the position of the UK government at what May signed up to on the Irish border in December. Bradley writes:
‘In my view this problem stems from the decision to accept the backstop agreements for Northern Ireland. I understand why you perhaps felt that you had to take that decision at that time, but it now becomes the barrier to the kind of wide-ranging free-trade agreement with the EU that many in our party and the country would like to see.
It has become a problem rather than a solution, but the Northern Ireland backstop cannot be allowed to become the deciding factor for the whole of the UK’s economy and trade policies. We must hold out for a deal that is right for our country, and ensure that walking away on WTO terms is a genuine and achievable alternative should that prove impossible.’
This highlights the Brexiteer dilemma – or mad riddle, to borrow a phrase from Danny Dyer. There is a deep frustration at the way No 10 conducted these negotiations. But there is a difference between finding issue with Theresa May’s previous decisions and having a solution to them. If Tory MPs want Theresa May to deviate from her current plan to solve her Irish border commitment of no hard border and no physical infrastructure, that suggests they need to either (a) put up a border in the Irish sea (b) renege on the current agreement and thereby leave the EU March 2019 with no withdrawal agreement and no transition. As of yet, not enough Brexiteers are united around either option for it to be viable.