David Davis, Brexit secretary, has resigned from the government just 48 hours after Theresa May forced through a new “soft Brexit” strategy against his advice.
Mr Davis’s resignation, confirmed at just before midnight on Sunday, is a devastating blow to Theresa May, who believed she had united her top team behind the compromise Brexit strategy.
Government officials said that Steve Baker, another Brexit minister, had also quit in protest at Mrs May’s new plan. Mr Baker was not returning calls.
Mrs May had increasingly sidelined Mr Davis in recent months, keeping him in the dark until the last moment about the new strategy that she intended to present to the cabinet at Chequers.
When Mr Davis saw the complex new customs plan drawn up by Mrs May’s top Brexit official, Olly Robbins, he warned the prime minister that it would not fly in Brussels, but he was overruled.
It was the final humiliation for the 69-year-old minister, who had been charged with overseeing Brexit since 2016, but whose role was gradually being taken by Mr Robbins.
Mr Davis believes that Mrs May’s plan to keep Britain close to the single market and customs union will unravel and that she will be forced to make even more concessions to Brussels in the coming months.
Downing Street had feared that either Mr Davis or foreign secretary Boris Johnson might quit the cabinet in protest at the plan; in the event Mr Johnson decided not to quit even though he described the new plan as “a turd” at the Chequers meeting.
Number 10 is braced for the possibility that other pro-Brexit ministers will follow Mr Davis out of the door, possibly triggering a Tory uprising against a plan seen by some Tory MPs as “Brexit in name only”.
Andrea Jenkyns, a pro-Brexit Tory MP, said: “Fantastic news. Well done David Davis for having the principal and guts to resign. I take my hat off to you. We need to make sure this is now a game changer for #Brexit.”
Ian Lavery, chair of the Labour party, said: “This is absolute chaos and Theresa May has no authority left.
“The prime minister is in office but not in power. She cannot deliver Brexit and our country is at a complete standstill, while the Tories indulge in their leadership tussling.”
Mr Davis’s dwindling role in the Brexit process has become obvious in recent months; the Financial Times reported last month that he had held only four hours of talks with Michel Barnier, his EU opposite number, in the whole of 2018.
He threatened to resign last month when Mrs May forced through a “backstop” plan for the Irish border which committed Britain to open-ended ties to the customs union if all other plans failed.
The Brexit secretary had been expected to launch a tour of European capitals to promote the Chequers deal, but the idea of being the salesman for a plan which he had tried to block appears to have been the final straw.
Mr Davis’s team has speculated in recent weeks that the minister might quit and that Mrs May might put his old Department for Exiting the EU under the control of the centre. One theory was that David Lidington, Cabinet Office minister and a highly respected former Europe minister, could be put in charge.