Prime Minister stems flow of Brexit resignations from her Cabinet
Senior ministers rallied round Theresa May after a day of Westminster drama raised questions over her future.
Theresa May appeared to have stemmed the tide of Brexit resignations from her Government, as senior ministers rallied around the Prime Minister at the first meeting of her new Cabinet.
Leading Brexiteer Michael Gove left no doubt that he would not follow Boris Johnson and David Davis out of the Cabinet, declaring that he backed the Prime Minister’s plans “100%”.
And International Trade Secretary Liam Fox was seen to shake his head and mouth the word “No” when reporters asked him on his way out of Cabinet whether he was about to quit.
Mrs May gathered her new team at 10 Downing Street as shockwaves continued to reverberate in Westminster following the first day since 1982 when two Cabinet ministers resigned within 24 hours.
Jeremy Hunt, appointed the new Foreign Secretary as the Prime Minister carried out a hurried reshuffle of her top team, vowed that he would be “four square” behind her in driving through her Brexit plan.
And Mr Gove told ITV News he was “absolutely not” planning to resign.
Asked whether Mrs May was in trouble following the rash of departures from her Government on Monday, the Environment Secretary replied: “No.”
And he told reporters outside his London home: “I admire Boris and David very much and I’m sorry that they have left the Government, but … I hope you have a lovely day.”
In a tweet clearly designed to show she was not being knocked off course, Mrs May said: “Productive Cabinet meeting this morning – looking ahead to a busy week. And sending our best wishes to @England for tomorrow!”
The PM’s official spokesman later said that Cabinet gave its approval to pressing ahead with preparations for a possible “no deal” Brexit as agreed at Chequers last Friday.
New Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab chaired a meeting with business leaders to discuss the Chequers plan, which would see the UK agree to follow a “common rulebook” on trade with the EU in goods but accept restricted access for services.
After the early-morning Cabinet, the PM went on to a service at Westminster Abbey to mark the 100th anniversary of the RAF and was later due to join German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a summit in London on the future of the Balkans.
Among Tory Brexiteers there was deepening anger at the proposals agreed by the Cabinet at Chequers, which they branded “Brexit in name only”.
However it was unclear whether they had the numbers to force a leadership challenge.
Under party rules, 48 Tory MPs – 15% of the party’s 316-strong representation in the Commons – must write to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, to trigger a no-confidence vote.
Former leader Lord Howard said a bid to oust Mrs May would be “extremely foolish and extremely ill-advised”.
“I think, and I’m delighted, that good sense seems to be breaking out,” Lord Howard told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Huge honour to be appointed Foreign Secretary at this critical moment in our country’s history. Time to back our PM to get a great Brexit deal - it's now or never...— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) July 9, 2018
Mrs May addressed the 1922 Committee in Westminster on Monday evening, raising the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government to appeal for Tory unity on Brexit.
Allies of the Prime Minister said that just six MPs expressed dissent in the course of the meeting.
Solicitor General Robert Buckland said: “She talked about Corbyn, she talked about the alternative which is delivering the country to the sort of government that I don’t think people have voted for and certainly any Conservative voter would be repelled by.”
Mr Buckland added that there had been a realisation that “we all hang together or we all hang separately”.
But Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the influential pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tory MPs, warned: “If the Government plans to get the Chequers deal through on the back of Labour Party votes, that would be the most divisive thing you could do.
“And it would be a split coming from the top, not from the members of the Conservative Party across the country.”
He made clear that he had not submitted a letter of no confidence and expected Mrs May to remain at least until the official date of Brexit in March 2019.
However the Daily Mail reported that Mr Rees-Mogg said Mr Johnson would make a “brilliant” prime minister.
In a scathing resignation letter, Mr Johnson – who led the official Leave campaign in the EU referendum – said the dream of the Brexiteers was “dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt” and that Mrs May’s plan would reduce the UK to the “status of a colony”.
But his claims were dismissed by former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon, who said: “Dreaming is good, probably for all of us, but we have to deal with the real world.”
A challenge to Mrs May’s position is “the last thing we need”, said Sir Michael.
Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson ,mocked the former foreign secretary, saying he had “a career ahead of him on Love Yourself Island”.
Mr Watson said Labour was keeping the option of a second Brexit referendum open in the case that Parliament could not decide a way forward, though he stressed that this route was “highly, highly unlikely”.
Meanwhile, Justice Secretary David Gauke warned Tory Eurosceptics that a “no deal” Brexit was “not an attractive option at all”.
While insisting that the option cannot be ruled out, Mr Gauke told Today: “What I would say to those of my colleagues, if there are some, who think this is pain-free and this is just something that we can ride over very easily, is no deal will have a negative impact on our constituents, on the British public.”
Brexiteers’ anger was fuelled by the fact that Monday’s rapid reshuffle leaves the four great offices of state – Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary – in the hands of ministers who voted to stay in the EU.
The turmoil came at the start of a momentous week for Mrs May on the world stage, with her attendance at the Nato summit in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday followed by Donald Trump’s first visit to the UK as US president.