Boris Johnson's Brexit plans under threat from ministers' resignations

Boris Johnson's Brexit plans under threat from ministers' resignations

Likely new PM could find no-deal option thwarted by senior Tories such as Philip Hammond

Boris Johnson’s hoped-for triumphant march into Downing Street this week is set to be dampened by a carefully timed series of resignations by senior ministers, who will retreat to the backbenches with a vow to thwart any moves towards a no-deal Brexit.

The announcements by Philip Hammond and David Gauke that they will step down on Wednesday, immediately before Johnson is likely to head to Buckingham Palace, highlight the perilous political climate for Theresa May’s expected successor.

It comes amid predictions that the Conservatives’ already wafer-thin working Commons majority of three could entirely disappear by the time MPs return from their summer recess, with mooted defections to the Lib Dems coming on top of a predicted byelection defeat.

Barring a hugely unexpected twist, Johnson is expected to be announced on Tuesday as the victor over Jeremy Hunt in the vote of Conservative members, formally taking over the next day, after May holds a valedictory prime minister’s questions.

However, some of the gloss will be removed with the promised resignations of Hammond, the chancellor, and Gauke, the justice secretary, with predictions that other ministers and junior ministers opposed to no deal, such as the international development secretary, Rory Stewart, could follow. It is understood that the business secretary, Greg Clark, another key cabinet voice against no deal, has no plans to resign.

Hammond took some apparent glee in announcing his intention live on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. Asked if he expected to be sacked if Johnson took power, he replied: “No, I’m sure I’m not going to be sacked, because I’m going to resign before we get to that point.”

He added: “I understand that his conditions for serving in his government would include accepting a no-deal exit on 31 October, and that’s not something that I could ever sign up to.”

Hammond denied that he would be recast on the backbenches as a serial rebel, insisting his only aim would be to stop a Johnson government forcing through no-deal without the explicit consent of MPs, for example by proroguing parliament.

“This is a parliamentary democracy, and if the new prime minister can persuade parliament to vote for a no-deal exit, then I will have to accept that,” he said. “But we can’t have wheezes like suspending parliament or proroguing parliament in order to deny parliament its voice.”

Earlier, Gauke said he also could not serve under Johnson. “Given that I’ve been in the cabinet since Theresa May came to power, I think the appropriate thing is for me to resign,” he told the Sunday Times, saying he would depart on Wednesday.

He added: “If the test of loyalty to stay in the cabinet is a commitment to support no deal on 31 October – which, to be fair to him, Boris has consistently said – then that’s not something I’m prepared to sign up to.”

Both Hammond and Gauke, along with Clark and Stewart, were among ministers who defied government whips last week over a backbench motion that makes it harder for Johnson to suspend parliament.

Hammond admitted to Marr that he had been texting other Tory MPs ahead of that vote, and had talked to opposition members. The prospect of a such a potentially noisy and well-connected cabal of ex-ministers could prove a significant headache for Johnson.

This group could also include the defence minister, Tobias Ellwood. While he has declined to say whether he would serve under Johnson, Ellwood told Sky News on Sunday that he could not countenance no deal as a plan. “No deal is not a destination. If you run away from the EU and say, ‘Fine, we don’t want to have a deal’, you’ll still have to crawl back, moments later, to say, ‘How are our financial services going to operate? How are operations with police going to work? How are citizens’ rights going to work?’” he said.

Hammond and other ministers have declined to say whether they could back a no-confidence motion against a Johnson government, and it seems unlikely that Labour would table one until after the summer recess, which begins on Thursday.

However, by the time MPs return at the start of September, Johnson’s difficulties could have multiplied, with the Lib Dems tipped to take the Brecon and Radnorshire seat from the Tories in an early August byelection.

While senior Lib Dem sources have played down reports that up to six disgruntled remain-minded Conservatives could defect to the party, they say enough are considering the move to potentially remove the rest of Johnson’s working majority.

“At the moment we don’t know how many we’ll get over the line,” a source said. “A lot depends on Johnson’s first 48 hours in No 10. At the moment, he seems more focused on Conservatives who are tempted by the Brexit party. I’m not sure the remainers are really on his radar. By September we’ll know a lot more.”

While Johnson has pledged to leave the EU on the current deadline of 31 October, with or without a deal, he has talked up his chances of reaching a swift new withdrawal agreement with the EU, one that would dispense with the backstop insurance policy for the Irish border.

But Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, dismissed such ideas as fantasy on Sunday. “If the approach of the new British prime minister is that they’re going to tear up the withdrawal agreement, I think we’re in trouble. I think we’re all in trouble, quite frankly,” he told the Marr show. “That’s like saying, ‘Either give me what I want or I’m going to burn the house down for everybody’.”

Gordon Brown has also joined the chorus of warnings about no-deal, saying future historians would view it as “an act of economic self-harm that runs wholly counter to the national interest”.

Writing in the Guardian, the former Labour prime minister said: “For what message do we send about what kind of Britain we now are if we reject last week’s European offer to ditch the cliff-edge, and boast instead that we will not pay the money we owe to the EU: the equivalent of declaring an economic war on our neighbours?”

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