Theresa May rolled the dice with a dramatic reshuffle of her ministerial team as she battles to cling onto her job and stop her own party tearing up her Brexit deal. The prime minister reduced the power of her critics and promoted allies to key positions as she took personal charge of the final days of the UK’s divorce talks with the European Union.
The appointments round off an extraordinary week in which seven members of her government quit their posts, and a plot to oust her from power gathered momentum. May’s perilous position puts at risk the fruits of two years of negotiations and raises the chance that Britain will crash out of the EU without a deal in March.
In an effort to seize control of the political agenda, May on Friday named a junior official, Stephen Barclay, as her new Brexit secretary after Dominic Raab quit the role a day earlier. And she brought former home secretary Amber Rudd, one of the stalwarts of the Remain campaign in the 2016 referendum, back into the cabinet to replace Esther McVey, the Brexit supporter who quit on Thursday as Work and Pensions Secretary.
Crucially, May stripped the Brexit post of responsibility for the negotiations with the EU. Instead, Barclay—who supported Leave in 2016—will focus on the domestic legislation to prepare Britain for its scheduled departure in March.
She also promoted Stephen Hammond, a fervent pro-European who has voted against the government in a bid to maintain closer ties with the bloc.
The appointments took place against the unprecedented backdrop of five cabinet ministers plotting to overhaul the agreement May has secured with the bloc. Andrea Leadsom, who is convening the group, Liam Fox, Chris Grayling, Penny Mordaunt and Michael Gove are trying to draft an alternative plan that they can support and so stay in the government, a person familiar with the matter said on Friday.
Leadsom, Mordaunt and Gove were all strongly touted to resign and join the seven members of May’s administration who quit their posts yesterday. But instead, they’ve remained in the cabinet—for now—to try and secure the changes they want to the UK Brexit strategy from within the government. They will struggle to make a difference, as the EU has all but closed the door on any changes.
May is sticking resolutely to her strategy in the face of widespread hostility from opposition parties, her supposed allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, and members of her own Conservatives. She took three hours of questions in the House of Commons on Thursday in a session that made it clear she’ll struggle to secure the approval she needs from the chamber. If she fails, the risk is that Britain tumbles out of the bloc in March without any agreement to smooth the process.
Brexiteers loathe the 585-page withdrawal deal as it looks set to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU even after a 21-month planned transition period.
Under the plan— a ‘backstop" to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland and ensure the border remains open with Ireland—Britain would have to heed EU competition and state aid rules, without any say over how they are set. Moreover, the country wouldn’t be able to unilaterally pull out of the arrangement. That, say Brexiteers, is worse than EU membership and would make the UK a “vassal" state, in perpetual limbo and unable to escape the bloc’s influence.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the influential leader of a group of 60 rank-and-file pro-Brexit Tories announced on Thursday he had sent a formal letter demanding a vote of no confidence in May’s leadership, with other lawmakers following suit.
Forty-eight letters are needed to trigger a vote, and Leading eurosceptic Steve Baker said on Friday he believes the threshold has been reached. But the only person who knows the accurate count is Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservatives, and there’s been no announcement from him. The latest tally of Tories who have announced they’ve sent letters is 22.
Amid the political drama, UK business tried to come to the premier’s aid. The Confederation of British Industry threw its weight behind her strategy and issued a warning on Friday to lawmakers who oppose it. The risk of no deal is already causing economic harm as companies of all sizes stockpile goods and components and move jobs and investment out of Britain, it said.
“Despite the political noise at Westminster, the real life implications for people and regions across the UK are what really matter," according to the CBI. “Compromising is essential to avoid a damaging no deal and move on to the future. For the sake of the prosperity of our country, we must not go backwards."
It’s been the most dangerous week yet for the premier—and she’s had many. May has doggedly weathered all the storms so far, and she told journalists late on Thursday she wouldn’t quit without a fight. “Am I going to see this through? Yes."
But she’s not out of the woods. There could yet be more letters calling for her to go, and even if she survives a leadership challenge, she still has to work out how to get her deal through Parliament.