David Davis has walked away. It’s what he does best. DDexit was inevitable from the moment he was appointed Brexit secretary. Davis is a quitter, not a fixer; asked to compromise, his preference is always for blowing the whole show up. Reports suggest he was especially irked by the No. 10 briefing about ministers being stuck at Chequers without a working local taxi number. The bloke was in the SAS Reserves and couldn’t figure out how to download the Uber app. It’s no mystery why the Brexit negotiations have been going nowhere.
There isn’t much affection for Davis, even among his fellow Brexit ultras, but some will try to paint this as a principled decision. It is nothing of the sort. If Davis was a man of principle, he would have refused to sign off on the Prime Minister’s ‘third way’ plan on Friday and handed in his ticket there and then. If need be, he could have Ramboed his way through the perilous Buckinghamshire countryside until he reached civilisation. Or Watford.
Instead, the bold Double-D gave the PM a thumbs up along with the rest of them, knowing he was dead set against the proposals. That’s how politics works but you don’t get to call it principled when it takes 48 hours for your backbone to stiffen.
Davis isn’t the only minister to resign. Steve Baker has also packed up his pencils and flounced out behind him. The Prime Minister’s authority has been challenged. Will she rise to it? She can either back down and dilute what was agreed at Chequers or press ahead and dare the fundamentalists behind her to strike. If she does the former, she may as well resign for she would be admitting that Jacob Rees-Mogg is already Prime Minister in all but name. If the latter, she may well face a leadership spill.
Were we dealing with rational people, we would not have to explain the self-mutilating stupidity of bringing the government into crisis in the final weeks of negotiations with the European Union. We are not dealing with rational people, alas. We are dealing with Tories. Specifically, we are dealing with the European Research Group, a kamikaze cult for which the hardest Brexit would still be a sell-out. They are political impossibilists prepared to tear down the government and be left with almost nothing rather than settle for 70 per cent of what they want.
In their red hot miasma of indignation, they fail to see that the public does not share their fanaticism. In the voters’ minds, Theresa May is delivering Brexit (for good or for ill). Moving against May is moving against Brexit. They are undermining the one issue on which the country knows where the government stands. Plunge that certainty into chaos and you render the government incapable of delivering its top priority in the eyes of the voters. Smart Brexiteers will stay with May and tinker around the edges of the Chequers model to make it more sufferable.
But the ERG is not interested in tinkering. It is an organisation of bold statements, red lines and unshakeable convictions. It doesn’t do nuance. It is not a political pressure group so much as a chapel for the worship of Eurosceptic iconography: Maggie’s handbag, the Bruges speech, Maastricht, a referendum denied, Lisbon, EPP withdrawal, a referendum won, the coming betrayal — the via dolorosa of Brexit. The fervour burns deep in these people.
The country cannot be held hostage to the hard-right headbangery of 60 backbench MPs. The Prime Minister needs to face them down and tell them it’s her Brexit or no Brexit. Let them bring on a vote of no confidence. Let them trigger a leadership election. Let them precipitate a general election that puts Gerry Adams’ staunchest ally in Downing Street. Then expel every last one of them from the Conservative Party. The Tories are supposed to be a patriotic party but they have been home to nationalists for too long now. Here is where accommodation has led. If it is the last thing she does — and it may well be — Theresa May should take back control of her party from those who no longer belong there.