In Depth

Why Theresa May is facing a Cabinet exodus

Up to 40 government ministers are threatening to resign if PM tries to stop them voting against no-deal Brexit

Theresa May is facing resignations from up to 40 members of her government if she attempts to stop Tory MPs from voting for a plan to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

An amendment drawn up by Home Affairs Committee chair Yvette Cooper and former Tory minister Nick Boles would ensure there is time for MPs to debate Cooper’s new EU Withdrawal Bill, which places a legal obligation on the Government to table a motion extending Article 50 until the end of the year if a deal is not approved by 7 March.

Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd “told Gavin Barwell, May’s chief of staff, that the Government should offer a free vote on the issue next Tuesday as a way of forcing all Tory MPs to show their view on Brexit issues”, reports The Times.

A Tory insider told the newspaper: “If they don’t do this there will be resignations. Two ministers have told No. 10 they will resign.”

May indicated in the Commons yesterday that she was likely to reject the request, “leading to a stand-off within the party”, continues The Times, which says Business Minister Richard Harrington, Digital Minister Margot James and Armed Forces Minister Tobias Ellwood as among those considering their positions.

However, Cooper’s plan looks likely to pass regardless of the PM’s response, as it has the backing of a number of senior backbenchers from across the Commons including former Tory cabinet ministers Dominic Grieve and Oliver Letwin, as well as the probable support of the Labour Party.

Jeremy Corbyn told Parliament yesterday: “We will, as we have said consistently from the beginning, back amendments that seek to rule out the disaster of no deal.”

It is possible “that if government whips conclude they are certain to lose the vote anyway, they may allow ministers to abstain rather than face mass resignations from the front bench”, says Politico’s Jack Blanchard.

But the more likely scenario “is that May will choose to go down fighting, sending a message to her Eurosceptic backbenches that she has done all she can to keep no-deal on the table”, he adds.

The suggestion that the free vote should be allowed has triggered a backlash from some within May’s government. One cabinet member told The Times: “This is clearly against government policy as set out from the dispatch box.”

The newspaper says that Tory chief whip Julian Smith will decide later this week whether to allow a free vote on the issue.

Some commentators argue that should Cooper’s amendment pass, it may increase the odds of May’s Brexit deal getting through the Commons at a second attempt.

The importance of Cooper’s Bill “is that it changes the default setting in law”, says The Independent’s John Rentoul, who explains that it would “transform the situation in the House of Commons” as “the cohort of Conservative MPs who want to leave without a deal would have to think again”.

“At the moment they are happy to vote everything down, knowing that this gets them what they want. But Cooper’s Bill would take what they want off the table. They would then have to choose between the prime minister’s deal and putting off Brexit for at least nine months,” Rentoul says.

The Financial Times backs that assessment, reporting: “Some are looking for reasons to back May’s deal if she can win more concessions in Brussels, rather than face the growing likelihood that Brexit will be delayed and possibly reversed the longer they hold out.” 

One Eurosceptic Tory MP told the newspaper: “People have had a month to reflect on the threat of no Brexit. There is an increased likelihood of a delay, and even that itself would be very damaging.”

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