LONDON — When British Prime Minister Theresa May reshuffled her cabinet on the day she took office, many were quick to conclude that she was handing the Brexit mess to those who had caused it.
Veteran Euroskeptic backbencher David Davis, 67, was placed in charge of the exit negotiations. Former Defense Secretary Liam Fox, 54, was tasked with winning new trade deals around the world. And Boris Johnson, 52, the former mayor of London, was given the job of carrying out the grand diplomacy needed to see the whole thing through.
But interviews with officials in Brussels and London, including with senior Conservative MPs, ministers and government aides, point to a different conclusion. May’s appointments reveal a determination to keep control of the process. Instead of handing Brexit to an all-powerful foreign secretary, May has split the role in three, dividing in order to rule.
“The one thing that drives everything for her is that she sees herself as being elected to do a job,” one close aide said of the new prime minister. “She sees it as a duty.”
Since then, May has developed the mantra she hopes will define her premiership: “Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it.”
The meaning of “Brexit means Brexit” may still be unclear, but there can no doubting who will be responsible for making it a success.
Any notion Davis, Fox and Johnson will be left to get on with the job is dismissed by those who know May well. The prime minister, a workaholic micro-manager, has never been hands-off and is not about to start now. Just because the three Brexiteers sided with Leave while May campaigned to remain does not mean they are in for an easy ride.
“Davis has a two-and-a-half year project,” one senior Tory MP said. “It’s a last hurrah for him, but a bloody good one. Boris has to be out there, shaking hands, and Liam has got to make sure we’ve actually got things in place when we leave. But, look, these labels of Remain and Leave have gone. This is a Brexit government. The prime minister is in charge.”
On Monday evening, when the official cabinet order of seniority was released ahead of the first meeting of the new government, the prime minister grasped another opportunity to show who was in charge.
Davis, the libertarian Brexit secretary, is ranked the eighth most important member of the cabinet. Fox, Britain’s new global trade supremo, is a further notch down in ninth.
Even Johnson, the highest ranked Brexiteer, only sits in fourth place in the pecking order, behind the other three great offices of state: prime minister, chancellor and home secretary — all of which are held by Remainers.
Chairing her first cabinet meeting as prime minister Tuesday, May formally sought to bind her entire government into the process of extricating Britain from the EU. “Every minister must play their role in making Brexit a success,” she said ahead of the meeting.
May’s junior appointments to the departments headed by Davis, Johnson and Fox also signal that the Brexiteers will not be given a free rein.
In the foreign office, May has handed Johnson two remainers who backed her leadership bid: Tobias Ellwood and Alan Duncan, a millionaire former oil trader who, in the midst of the leadership election, described Johnson as “Borisconi,” likening him to the playboy former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Fox, a hard-line Thatcherite Brexiteer, has been handed two pro-Remain ministers to work in his new department for international trade. Greg Hands, a U.S.-born former city trader and chief secretary to the treasury under Osborne, will be the new minister of state tasked with drumming up new free trade deals. Both men will be supported by Mark Garnier, an affable Remainer with deep concerns about Brexit’s implications for the country’s balance of payments.
The main Brexit department is, appropriately, the one with the highest concentration of advocates for leaving the EU. Davis believes no agreement is better than one that accepts free movement. He is supported by former cabinet minister David Jones, who ran the Vote Leave campaign in Wales and has been appointed a minister of state. The junior minister in the department, Robin Walker, was a Remainer, but a reluctant one.
May will control the process by chairing a powerful cabinet committee on Brexit, which will function as the de facto decision-making body in charge of the process. Cabinet committees are set up and appointed by the prime minister and their decisions are binding on the government as a whole.
“They are incredibly important tools for controlling things,” one former Number 10 aide said. “That she is chairing one on Brexit shows her intent. She will set the agenda, decide how often they meet, work with the civil service on the papers to be discussed.”
Whom May assigns to the committee will reveal the direction she intends to take. In addition to Davis, Fox and Johnson, she is likely to seek input from the Treasury as well as the secretaries of state for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — all of whom backed Remain.
In Brussels, May’s Brexit appointments were seen as a “provocation,” a number of sources said. Faced with a choice, May fired an opening shot in a battle to come, instead of reaching for the levers of diplomacy.
“She’s just making the same mistake Cameron did, placing party interest over the national interest,” said a British source in the EU institutions. “Doesn’t she realize how these appointments look here? The sense of anger and desire to punish Britain is real.”
One source who witnessed the chaotic opening few days of May’s premiership revealed her office had already taken on a “bunkerish” feel with decisions emerging from a room closed to all but a select few.
Senior Conservative MPs believe May will have to start preparing for the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal being struck during the Article 50 negotiations.
“She has to deal with the possibility of a blocking minority in the Council,” said one high-profile Tory MP. “Even if she gets past that, the European Parliament has a veto. At the end of the two years, if there’s no deal, we just leave. Then we’re into years of tariff negotiations.”
Other influential Euroskeptic Tories privately admit they foresee an agreement whereby Britain agrees to free movement of labor for those with a job offer, alongside some form of emergency brake on overall numbers similar to a deal that was granted to Liechtenstein.
But senior Conservatives believe such a deal would no longer be acceptable. “I just don’t think that’s good enough,” one former Downing Street aide said. “She cannot come back without control of the numbers coming in.”
In an interview with the Mail on Sunday over the weekend, Davis, who was known as “Monsieur Non” when he was Europe minister in John Major’s 1990s government, said: “The British public have made it clear where they stand on regaining control of our borders.”
But the prime minister is no burn-it-down-and-start-again radical. Before the referendum, she confided in her closest aides that it was the economic risks of Brexit that persuaded her to back Remain.
May, who worked at the Bank of England before going into politics, explained her decision to an aide over dinner before the June 23 vote. “She said she could not look back in her old age and say that she was involved in something that meant people weren’t able to look after their families because the economy crashed,” the aide said.
No understanding of Britain’s new Team Brexit would be complete without understanding the influence of May’s two chiefs of staff: Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s closest and most loyal aides.
One source who witnessed the chaotic opening few days of May’s premiership revealed her office had already taken on a “bunkerish” feel with decisions emerging from a room closed to all but a select few around May, including Hill and Timothy.
Damian Green, the new work and pensions secretary who has known May since they studied together at university, described Timothy, 36, as “hugely influential.”
With no foreign policy adviser in place to replace the expertise of former Number 10 chief of staff Ed Llewellyn, Timothy, who supported Brexit and is tough on immigration, will become increasingly influential.
A week before the referendum, he wrote an article for Conservative Home setting out his Euroskepticism. “I have already voted to leave the EU, I think we should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, and I am not altogether comfortable with our participation in the Ryder Cup team.”
But he attacked the Vote Leave campaign for obscuring the trade-off between free movement and access to the single market: “If the country votes to leave, it would almost certainly be the British government’s policy to seek access to the single market, regardless of which party or prime minister was in power.”
It’s a proposal that is remarkably close to one that has been championed by Philip Hammond, May’s powerful ally and chancellor. In recent interviews, Hammond indicated Britain would not remain in the single market, but seek access to it from outside — an idea that Wolfgang Schäuble, his German counterpart, described as “reasonable.”
Those reading the runes believe May is working toward striking a deal in which Britain would spend a short transition period in the European Economic Area, allowing some free movement, followed by a full exit and a series of free trade agreements.
When May was home secretary under Cameron, she would sometimes disappear from public view for months, only to emerge with a bold intervention. If that approach is anything to go by, and May triggers Article 50 at the beginning of 2017 as is anticipated, Brussels should prepare for 29 months of careful negotiation followed by a hard Brexit in January 2019.