LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May pledged on Monday to pursue a newly agreed strategy to quit the European Union, in a challenge to those who may want to follow her former Brexit minister and quit in protest at what he called her “dangerous” plans.
The late-night departure of David Davis has raised the stakes for May, who hailed the hard-won agreement with her deeply divided cabinet of ministers on Friday to keep the closest possible trading ties with the EU.
But her spokesman signalled on Monday she would not back down over the “business friendly” agreement, saying May would now focus on moving the Brexit negotiations forward – a step EU officials and businesses have long called for.
Davis, who backed Brexit in a 2016 referendum, said he quit because the cabinet deal had given “too much away, too easily” to EU negotiators, who, he feared, would simply ask for more.
Sterling rose, as traders bet Davis’s resignation would not imperil May and instead focused on the newly-announced deal that markets believe makes a “soft Brexit” more likely.
Many eurosceptics are angry, saying the agreed strategy betrays her promise for a clean break with the EU, raising the prospect that some could try to unseat her.
But by appointing Brexit campaigner Dominic Raab as Davis’s replacement, May might hope to quell some of that anger. He has argued that Britain will get a “great result” from Brexit, but has also called on supporters to show flexibility.
“An agreement was reached by the cabinet on Friday and now we are moving forward to negotiate that plan,” May’s spokesman told reporters. “As the prime minister said … we have set out our position and it is now the EU’s turn to move and that she wants the EU to get serious in these negotiations.”
Davis’s resignation may also further disrupt Brexit talks, with less than nine months before Britain leaves and just over three before the EU says it wants a deal that will mark Britain’s biggest foreign and trade policy shift in decades.
But much of the negotiation falls to May’s office. May’s Europe adviser, Oliver Robbins, has mostly led the talks in Brussels, with the Brexit minister taking a coordinating role at home.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit coordinator, said he had enjoyed working with Davis and that he hoped Britain would unite “around a position to conclude a broad Association Agreement with the EU”.
With the EU warning time is running out for the talks, May has to move the negotiations forward, but some fear she will be backed into a corner by the bloc. Voter approval of her handling of Brexit has fallen to 29 percent, a poll said.
Davis said he had left because he feared the EU would “take what we have offered already and then demand some more. That has been their practice throughout the last year and I fear, in fact, if anything, this is just the start.”
“It seems to me we are giving too much away, too easily, and that is a dangerous strategy at this time,” he told BBC radio.
Denying that he wanted to unseat the prime minister, he said he would now “argue for being as firm as possible.”
In a letter to May, Davis said he did not want to be “a reluctant conscript” to her negotiating stance.
In a move that unnerved Conservative Party eurosceptics, Steve Baker, a minister who worked for Davis, also quit in protest at the new strategy. For many Brexit campaigners, Baker’s government role gave them faith in the process.
After meeting at Chequers, May seemed to have persuaded the most vocal Brexit campaigners including Davis to back her plan to press for “a free trade area for goods” with the EU.
It won the backing of prominent Brexit campaigner Michael Gove, May’s environment minister, who said on Sunday he believed it delivered on handing back control to Britain.
But Davis had expressed his unease over a compromise plan right up until the eve of the meeting, describing it in a letter to May as “unworkable”.
Other Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs have criticised the Chequers deal, saying May’s plans offered Brexit in name only.
Their complaints raise a question mark over whether May can win backing in parliament for her plans if any deal with the EU is agreed later this year, and some suggest several of them could try to trigger a leadership contest against her.
She will face them at a meeting of the party later on Monday.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of a Conservative group of Brexit supporters, said Davis’s resignation proved that their concerns were well-founded.
He told Reuters. “If the Brexit Secretary could not support them (the Chequers conclusions) they cannot genuinely be delivering Brexit.”
Additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Michael Holden and Kate Holton, Editing by William Maclean