The choice Brexiteers face is stay in the cabinet and have increasingly less influence, or resign and be made an example of by backbenchers
Throw yourself back to June 2016. Tories Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom alongside Labour’s Gisela Stewart on a stage in Wembley stadium for the BBC’s The Great Debate just days before the EU Referendum concluded with the shock vote for Britain’s departure. Each repeating the mantras of “If We Vote Leave X, Y, Z”, “Let’s Take Back Control” and the now infamous “There Is £350 Million A Week That We Do Not Control”.
Yet now, Stewart isn’t even an MP, Leadsom has been demoted to Leader of the House of Commons after a poor 11 months as Environment Secretary, and Boris Johnson is globe trotting as Foreign Secretary, as far from being the occupant of №10 as he has ever been. In short, Leadsom’s influence has been curtailed, Gisela Stewart is in no position to offer any influence at all, and Boris Johnson, as I write here, may be at one of the Greatest Offices of State the U.K. has to offer, but apparently has little no influence over anything the Government says or does on Brexit.
Theresa May has, slowly but surely, silenced those that campaigned for the Leave vote in the first place, and cut any influence they feel they have. Boris Johnson had to write a 4,200 word piece for the Telegraph just to get a voice on the Brexit process, and yet still managed not to influence yesterday’s Brexit speech in any meaningful way whatsoever, with the “march of the softies” — those that favour a softer withdrawal from the Union — meaning that a two year transition period would be put in place despite reservations from those on the “Hard Brexit” wing of the Conservative Party.
Boris Johnson was a key player on that wing: he wanted the U.K.’s money back, Freedom of Movement to end and for trade deals to become the normal way of conducting Global trade from Birtain from March 2019. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox too wanted no transitional deal and a speedy exit, perhaps because his department can do no proper work apart from globe trotting shows of the future until Exit Day. His public spat over a transitional deal in the summer with Chancellor Philip Hammond was also notable; after weeks of arguing that his Department would be able to arrange and have the Prime Minister sign trade deals as soon as March 30th 2019 arrives, Liam Fox was forced to concede firstly to the Chancellor, and now to the PM herself.
The speech yesterday made it clear that May intends to continue the status quo for at least two years, preventing the signing of trade deals as Liam Fox privately desires. Just as Boris Johnson lost his influence, so has Liam Fox over the immediate result of Exit Day. Meanwhile, Priti Patel, the rising star of the Brexit Club, is stuck at the Department for International Development because she is too Thatcherite, too classically liberal for Theresa May to place her anywhere else, because she likes to “cut things too much”. She endorsed Johnson’s vision, but again has no influence over the final deal. Michael Gove is relaxed about the situation and Leadsom is on a one-way route out of the cabinet all together.
The issue for these Brexiteers is they have no way to (re-)gain their power and influence that they expected to have when they won the referendum. Boris Johnson’s article and subsequent failure to get a single concession shows that his influence is minimal, possible because “It’s Boris”, maybe because the Prime Minister realises it takes a Boris to win a campaign and a grown-up like May to Govern. Amber Rudd has managed to bring May over to continuing freedom of movement and the jurisdiction of the ECJ during the transitional period at least; and her conciliatory approach in her speech represents a significant climb down in that she is no longer insisting the UK Courts be the highest court on all issues.
How do Brexiteers change the approach their Government is increasingly seeming to take? They can’t lobby the Prime Minister, she isn’t listening and is listening to her Chancellor and Home Secretary more and more. If they resign, they risk the backlash of back benchers who want to see the Government govern effectively and deliver Brexit, and to move away from the old guard and towards a new face of the party that Liam Fox and Boris Johnson certainly no longer represent. The resignation of Priti Patel would carry more weight, but the majority of MPs view her as too far to the right to offer leadership and victory in the future and so would support the current Prime Minister.
The short choice Brexiteers face is stay in the cabinet and have increasingly less influence as May is won over to softer positions and concessions, or leave and be made an example of by backbenchers and have your future leadership ambitions destroyed. It’s no secret that Patel and Johnson both have some leadership ambition; they will stay put and wait for when May is deposed, even if that means being silenced on the issue of Brexit. They have no other choice and nowhere to go.