The departure of Brexit minister David Davis is a major blow to Prime Minister Theresa May
London (AFP) - British Prime Minister Theresa May insisted on Monday she was focused on negotiations with the EU after her Brexit minister and his deputy dramatically quit over plans to retain strong economic ties with the bloc even after leaving.
Downing Street swiftly appointed eurosceptic housing minister Dominic Raab to Davis’s job, and said May was looking forward to working with him to deliver Britain’s departure from the EU in March.
The resignation of Davis, with a stinging warning that Britain was “giving too much away too easily” in Brexit talks, was a blow to May just days after she declared a truce among her warring ministers.
All eyes are now on the next move by Brexit hardliners in her Conservative party, who hailed Davis and his deputy Steve Baker for quitting, amid speculation of a possible leadership challenge.
But the appointment of Raab, a leading Brexit supporter, suggests they are divided, while reports that another of Davis’ deputies, Suella Braverman, had also quit were denied.
Davis himself said it would be “wrong” if his departure led to a full-fledged rebellion, saying that “of course” May would survive.
May will address parliament later to explain her proposal for Britain to adopt EU rules on goods after Brexit, and is also expected to speak to Conservative MPs.
The plan was agreed by cabinet ministers during marathon talks on Friday, where even those wanting a clean break from the EU fell into line.
Dominic Raab will replace David Davis as Brexit minister
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a leading Brexit campaigner, criticised the proposal in private but has so far refrained from public comment.
The deal meant that for the first time since the vote for Brexit in June 2016, Britain has a detailed proposal to take to Brussels, and still hopes to agree a deal by October.
May’s spokesman told reporters: “There was an agreement reached on Friday and we look forward to taking that agreement forward in negotiations.”
He added: “We believe it will deliver a positive Brexit, that’s what we’re focused on.”
The European Commission’s spokesman Margaritis Schinas said the change of ministers was not a problem and it was ready to negotiate “24⁄7”.
The EU “will continue to negotiate in goodwill, bona fide, with Prime Minister May and the UK negotiators in order to reach a deal”, he said.
May spoke to Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, EU president Donald Tusk and the leaders of Ireland, Sweden and Malta over the weekend to discuss her plans, and is meeting Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in London later Monday.
- ‘Reluctant conscript’ -
May is due to address parliament later on Monday to explain her plan for Britain to adopt EU rules on goods after Brexit
In his resignation letter to May late Sunday, Davis warned that on Brexit, “the general direction of policy will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one.”
Her plan would “make the supposed control by parliament illusory rather than real”, and proposals for a “common rulebook” on goods “hands control of large swathes of our economy to the EU”.
Davis said his job required “an enthusiastic believer in your approach, and not merely a reluctant conscript”.
Speaking to the BBC on Monday, he said he hoped Britain would “resist very strongly any attempt to get any further concessions”.
May replied in a letter rejecting “your characterisation of the policy we agreed”, which she said would see powers currently held by the EU returned to Britain.
Davis was appointed after the referendum to head up the newly created Department for Exiting the EU and became the public face of Brexit, leading the British delegation in talks with Brussels.
His role had been increasingly overshadowed in recent months as May and her aides took a bigger role, and had reportedly threatened to quit several times as they moved towards closer ties with the EU post-Brexit.
- ‘Brexit in name only’ -
Timeline of the Brexit talks
Brexit hardliners have welcomed Davis’s move, with Conservative MP Peter Bone saying: “The PM’s proposals for a Brexit in name only are not acceptable.”
Andrea Jenkyns, who quit as a ministerial aide earlier this year to fight for Brexit, urged Johnson to follow suit, tweeting: “Time for true #Brexiteers to make it happen.”
The main opposition Labour party said the government was in “absolute chaos”.
“It is now clearer than ever that Theresa May does not have the authority to negotiate for Britain or deliver a Brexit deal that protects jobs and the economy,” spokesman Keir Starmer said.
May’s plan would create a free-trade area with the EU for goods, to protect supply chains in areas such as manufacturing, while maintaining flexibility for Britain’s dominant service sector.
It is unclear whether Brussels will accept this, however, after repeatedly warning Britain it cannot “cherry-pick” bits of the EU single market.