LONDON — Theresa May’s cabinet is on the brink of open civil war as some of the government’s most important office holders struggle to reconcile their differences over how they should handle Brexit.
The latest rift involves Chancellor Philip Hammond, Brexit Secretary David Davis, and Foreign Secretary David Davis, who have all been tipped to replace May should the under-pressure prime minister quit in the coming months or years.
Hammond and Davis have reportedly offered significantly different timetables for what should happen once the two-year Article 50 negotiation process comes to an end in March 2019 — specifically how long a transitional phase, also known as an implementation period, ought to last.
A transitional deal would be put into place as soon as Brexit is completed, and would see Britain wedded in at least some degree to EU institutions on a temporary basis in order to stop the country falling off an economic cliff-edge.
Hammond suggested last week that Britain should seek a transitional deal lasting up to four years once it has ceased to be an EU member, which is one year over the maximum limit set out in the EU parliament’s negotiating guidelines.
However, Davis rebuffed Hammond’s claim at the Times CEO summit on Monday, saying a transitional phase should last no longer than two years. The Brexit Secretary then went onto to accuse Hammond of inconsistency, saying:
“That’s a false distinction. The chancellor said a number of things that are not quite consistent with each other. One of the most important things he’s said is that it’s got to be done before the next election [2022 at the latest]. So that’s a maximum of three years.”
Hammond and Davis work closely together and hold weekly meetings on pushing for a business-friendly post-Brexit immigration system, the Times newspaper reports. However, this public disagreement is a sign that May is struggling to manage the clear differences of opinion within her top team over what Britain’s exit from the EU should look like.
Hammond — who on Brexit is one of the government’s most moderate ministers — has also this week taken a not-so-subtle swipe at Foreign Secretary Johnson, who like Davis campaigned for Britain to leave the 28-nation bloc last year.
The Chancellor opened a speech he gave to German business representatives in Berlin on Monday with the line: “A compromise is the art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes he has the biggest piece.”
This appears to have been a dig at Johnson, who during the run-up to the historic in-out referendum famously said he saw Britain “having our cake and eating it” once it sits down to negotiate its future trade and political relations with the European Union.
Analysis: May is losing grip on her Cabinet
This latest round of internal conflict is symptomatic of a problem May now faces since failing to win a Parliamentary majority in the general election. A comfortable majority would have given her the power to stamp her authority on the cabinet and perhaps even get rid of ministers who were proving to be a source of tension.
May failed to fully dismiss reports that she was considering to sack Hammond in the run-up to the June 8 election.
However, her failure to retain a parliamentary majority has diminished her authority within government and Conservative moderates like Hammond and others feel emboldened to push for a softer version of Brexit and derail the more abrupt divorce desired by Davis and other Brexiteers in the cabinet like Johnson and trade secretary Liam Fox.
Other potential leadership candidates, such as Andrea Leadsom have also been increasingly visible on the airwaves, despite reportedly failing to clear their appearances in advance with Downing Street.
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