Where do Theresa May's ministers stand on Brexit?
As Theresa May’s cabinet prepares to meet on Tuesday to try to overcome the remaining political obstacles to striking a deal with Brussels, we take a look at the different factions.
This group, led by the de facto deputy prime minister, David Lidington, will back May to the hilt. Lidington, a solid remainer before the referendum, is mistrusted by some leavers but has played a key role in developing the PM’s plan, selling it to the EU and seeking to heal divisions in the Tory party. The Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, who voted remain in 2016, is a former trusted May lieutenant from her days at the Home Office. The Welsh secretary, Alun Cairns, would also go to the wall for May. The Tory party chair, Brandon Lewis, is another of May’s Home Office allies and despite campaigning for remain says he would now vote leave, describing himself as “first and foremost a democrat”. He acts as a crucial buffer between the pro-Brexit party grassroots and the prime minister.
Downing Street is concerned that these MPs’ ideological commitment to leaving the EU will eventually outweigh their desire to stay in the cabinet. They have all let it be known that they are unhappy and considering their next moves. The international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, a prominent member of the Vote Leave campaign, has refused to explicitly back May’s Brexit proposals and suggested her support could be conditional on the final deal. The work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, last week repeatedly declined to say she supported plans for a soft withdrawal – though she did say she backed the PM. The Commons leader, Andrea Leadsom, a prominent Brexiter, has laid into May’s exit mechanism proposal, predicting it would be thrown out by parliament, yet is so far “sticking in government”, preferring the influence of being on the inside. The trade secretary, Liam Fox, is a long-term Eurosceptic, but is also close to the prime minister, so has been less vocal in cabinet than many expected. If any of them decide to quit, May will be in dangerous territory.
This small but powerful group see their role as injecting some economic reality into the cabinet’s Brexit debate. For his troubles, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, has become the minister leavers love to hate. His downbeat forecasts and no-deal warnings have been labelled Project Fear #2, but he can dare to say what May – for political reasons – cannot. The business secretary, Greg Clark, a loyal lieutenant to his fellow remainer in No 11, may be averse to grandstanding but has quietly spelled out to colleagues how much business would suffer if the PM pursued a different route. The Scottish secretary, David Mundell, is loyal to the prime minister and, like the majority of his countrymen, supported remain, but has his own red lines on fishing rights and Northern Irish-only arrangements. Along with the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, a fellow instinctive remainer, he is fearful these would fuel calls for Scottish independence.
A trio of ministers who all backed – and believed in – remaining in the EU but now recognise the political reality of the referendum result and the fragile situation the Tory party – and the prime minister – find themselves in. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, who was close to George Osborne, has survived – even thrived – under May. In part, perhaps, because he has played a relatively straight bat on Brexit. The justice secretary, David Gauke, is another former Treasury minister who backs a soft Brexit and wants the UK to maximise access to EU markets afterwards. But he has – publicly at least – taken a practical approach. The education secretary, Damian Hinds, declared himself “very disappointed” by the referendum result but then moved on in his own undramatic way. He defended the prime minister over Brexit on television last weekend. Loyal, even if they privately regret leaving the EU.
May relies on this quartet of ideological Brexiters to help persuade Tory Eurosceptics that her final deal delivers on promises made in the referendum. She also needs them to assuage her more unpredictable Brexiter cabinet ministers and, if and when a final deal is delivered, help sell it to a divided Tory party. The environment secretary, Michael Gove, one of main architects of the leave campaign, presents himself as the reassuring face of what Brexit will look like. The transport secretary, Chris Grayling, is regularly wheeled out to the media by No 10 to try to reassure the country that a deal will be reached, while the legal case for Brexit put forward by the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, has taken on a new weight in light of cabinet splits. The Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, will play the biggest part of all: if he backs a final deal then many Tory Eurosceptics are likely to follow suit. He was a pragmatic Brexiter when he was brought into the cabinet, but there have been rumours (fiercely denied) swirling over the last few days that he is on the brink of resigning.
This group all have their eyes on the biggest prize of all – being on the right side of the Brexit debate when May does eventually step down. The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was a leading remainer who now says he has changed his mind and would vote leave if he had his time again, blaming the European commission’s “arrogant” behaviour for changing his mind. The home secretary, Sajid Javid, was a natural Eurosceptic who backed remain at the behest of David Cameron but after the vote appeared to regret his decision, which lost him the trust of many Tory Brexiters. He has been treading a careful line between scepticism and loyalty ever since. The defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, previously a low-key remainer, has grown keener on Brexit as the months have gone on, although he has recently kept his counsel. The Treasury chief secretary, Liz Truss, awkwardly for her boss, the chancellor, has had a damascene conversion and is now a fully signed-up leaver. It will not have passed any of them by that the next leader of the Tory party will have to unify MPs as well as win the support of the predominantly Brexiter membership.