LONDON (Reuters) – Brexit Secretary David Davis said on Monday he had resigned to stop Prime Minister Theresa May from handing too much power to the European Union, increasing the pressure on a British leader struggling to overcome Brexit divisions.
Davis, who campaigned for Brexit in Britain’s 2016 referendum, told BBC radio that a hard-won agreement with her cabinet team of ministers had given “too much away, too easily” to EU negotiators, who, he feared, would simply ask for more.
His late-night resignation, followed by at least one other minister in the Brexit department, is a blow to May, who was momentarily buoyed on Friday after seemingly thrashing out a deal to keep the closest possible trading ties with her cabinet to support her plans to leave the EU.
It raises questions over whether she can sell her plan to Britain’s equally divided parliament and may embolden those wanting to unseat her.
The resignation may also further complicate an already fraught Brexit, 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 the pound rose, with traders saying the compromise plan made a “soft Brexit” more likely.
“My fear is they will 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,” Davis said.
“It seems to me we are giving too much away, too easily, and that is a dangerous strategy at this time.”
Denying that he wanted to unseat the prime minister, he said he would now “argue for being as firm as possible.”
“Perhaps, one side effect of my departure might be to put a little pressure on the government not to make any other concessions and I will keep arguing to say there is a better way to do it than this.”
In a letter sent to May in the early hours of Monday, Davis said he was not willing to be “a reluctant conscript” to her negotiating stance, which would see Britain mirror EU rules and regulations.
May replied to his letter to say she did not agree “with your characterisation of the policy we agreed at cabinet on Friday”. She thanked him for his work.
In a move that could fire up eurosceptics in May’s Conservative Party, a government source said that Steve Baker, a minister who worked for Davis, had also resigned. For many Brexit campaigners, Baker’s role in government gave them faith in the process.
Another minister from the Brexit department, Suella Braverman, was also reported by local media to have resigned, although there was no official confirmation and she did not respond to a request for comment.
After the hours-long meeting at Chequers, May seemed to have persuaded the most vocal Brexit campaigners in the cabinet, including Davis, to back her plan to press for “a free trade area for goods” with the EU and maintain close trade ties.
It won the backing of one other high-profile Brexit campaigner. Michael Gove, May’s environment minister, said on Sunday that while the agreed negotiating stance was not perfect, he believed it delivered on handing back control to Britain.
The so-called peace deal raised hopes that Britain could finally move on with all-but-stalled talks with the EU, which has yet to give a definitive comment on whether they will accept May’s plan.
But Davis had expressed his unease over a compromise plan right up until the eve of the meeting, writing a letter to May describing her proposal to ease trade and give Britain more freedom to set tariffs as “unworkable”.
Davis has form on resigning if he disagrees with his party. In 2008, when the Conservatives were not in government, Davis quit as a member of parliament to raise the profile of a debate over what saw as the erosion of civil liberties.
Shortly afterwards he stood as the Conservative candidate and was re-elected.
Other Brexit-supporting Conservative lawmakers have criticised the Chequers “peace deal”, saying that May’s plans offered a Brexit in name only, a betrayal of what they saw as her promise for a clean break with the EU.
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.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of a group of Brexit supporters in the Conservative Party, said Davis’ resignation proved that their concerns were well-founded and signalled that he would not vote for May’s plan if it came to a vote in parliament.
“It is crucially important as it shows how well founded concerns over the Chequers conclusions are,” he told Reuters. “If the Brexit Secretary could not support them they cannot genuinely be delivering Brexit.”
Additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Michael Holden and Kate Holton, Editing by William Maclean