Theresa May hires key EU foe as Brexit team upended before talks
London: Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a leading Brexit campaigner as a junior minister for exiting the European Union after her team of officials working on the negotiations was thrown into turmoil just a week before talks begin.
In a shakeup following last week’s election fiasco, May fired the Brexit-supporting David Jones from her ministerial team, while George Bridges, who steered legislation through the upper house of Parliament, quit.
The comings and goings highlight the trouble May will have charting a Brexit route she can sell at home, after the snap election she called to strengthen her position left her in a worse state, with no majority in the House of Commons. The first meeting between the UK and EU to discuss Brexit terms is scheduled for Monday.
Speaking at a summit in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron, May insisted the British public is uniting behind leaving the EU and wants her government to get on with it. The timetable for the talks “remains on course and will begin next week,” she added.
On Monday, May’s office named Steve Baker as a new minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union. He’s the former chairman of Conservatives for Britain, the group that marshalled euro-skeptic Tories and forced a series of concessions out of then-Prime Minister David Cameron ahead of last year’s referendum.
Baker has since run the European Research Group, a caucus of Tory lawmakers determined to hold the government to a full departure from the EU. They have a staff, and coordinate their interventions through a WhatsApp group.
May’s challenge is to keep this group on side at the same time as those supporting a more moderate position. Senior Tory ministers are arguing that the party’s shock loss of its majority in last week’s election should prompt a rethink of Brexit strategy.
Not only did the result suggest there isn’t much enthusiasm for May’s threats to leave the EU without a deal, it shows the Tories would be vulnerable if a badly-managed Brexit did economic damage.
Although Baker is well-versed in arcane details of the EU, he will have a steep learning curve in his first government job. The disarray at the Brexit department—Baker replaces one of two ministers who have left—comes with negotiations just days away.
On Tuesday afternoon, ahead of his appointment being announced, Baker set out his current position. “We need a good, clean exit which minimizes disruption and maximizes opportunity,” Baker wrote on Twitter. “In other words, we need the ‘softest’ exit consistent with actually leaving and controlling laws, money, borders and trade,” he said.
Weakened by an election that was intended to strengthen her, May is now working to regain some of her lost standing. On Sunday she brought back into the Cabinet Michael Gove, a Brexit supporter she’d fired a year earlier. On Monday she appeared before Tory lawmakers in private to apologize and take responsibility for the election blow.
The appointment of Baker may have more to do with consolidating her position than signalling a Brexit course. According to “All Out War,” an account of the referendum battle, Baker was responsible for organizing what the official Leave campaign referred to as “the flying monkeys”—aggressively anti-EU Tory lawmakers.
But his appointment was attacked by the opposition Liberal Democrats, the most pro-EU of the mainstream political parties.
“Far from softening her stance on Brexit, Theresa May is doubling down by appointing an arch-Brexiteer to help lead the negotiations,” Alistair Carmichael, a Scottish lawmaker, said in a statement. “It flies in the face of last week’s election in which the British people clearly rejected her extreme version of Brexit.” Bloomberg