Jeremy Hunt and Matt Hancock
Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary, and Matt Hancock, minister of health © Getty / FT Montage

Theresa May lives to struggle through another day. The resignations of David Davis, her Brexit secretary, and Boris Johnson, foreign secretary, may threaten her position as UK prime minister.

But just as the hardline Brexiters have no coherent alternative to what was agreed last week at Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence, so they do not appear to have a strategy for changing course or removing the prime minister. Her government stumbles on, therefore. Mrs May’s weakness, it seems, is her greatest strength.

Monday’s mini-reshuffle to restock the cabinet was designed to be uncontentious. Jeremy Hunt’s elevation to replace Mr Johnson at the Foreign Office is a surprising move that will boost his future leadership hopes. As a former Remainer reborn as a Brexiter, he appeals to all parts of the Conservative party. Yet his legacy at the health department remains unclear and some of his colleagues wonder if he is up to his new role. His substantial task is to repair the damage done to Britain’s international reputation by Mr Johnson. 

Picking Matt Hancock to replace Mr Hunt as health secretary is a canny move. Like his predecessor, he is an uncontroversial figure who is generally well liked among Tory MPs. He will be missed as culture secretary — his social media profile shows how to make the most of a junior cabinet role. On his agenda is solving Britain’s social care crisis — a white paper is due soon — as well as how to fund the £20bn-a-year boost for the National Health Service. The only notable thing that can be said about Jeremy Wright, his replacement in the culture brief, is that he lost the High Court challenge last year on whether legislation was needed to trigger Article 50. 


There has been no backlash against these appointments so the prime minister can breathe a little easier. The question for Mrs May is whether she will face a leadership challenge in the coming days. The mood in the Conservative party is febrile, with Mr Johnson’s resignation letter, in particular, putting the jitters into Brexiters. Eurosceptics remain angry at the prime minister’s Chequers strategy and vow to fight it every step of the way. But for the time being they do not believe that removing Mrs May will further their aim of a clean break with the EU.

If the mood deteriorates and they decide she should go, the process is straightforward. For the past two decades, a leadership contest in the Conservative party is triggered if 15 per cent of MPs say they have no confidence in the leader. Given the current size of the parliamentary party, that means 48 letters need to be written. It is then a straight vote: whether the party has confidence in their leader or not. Mrs May has vowed to stay on even if she wins by one vote. The sense among MPs on Tuesday morning is that if a challenge is mounted now, she would scrape through.

The blood-letting that began with the departures of Messrs Davis and Johnson is not over. It could be that the anger is contained, at least until Mrs May brings back a softer Brexit deal and has to pass it through the House of Commons. Or it could be that there are more resignations and instability to come. Either way, these latest exchanges in the Conservative party’s euro wars are far from over. And meanwhile the Article 50 clock ticks on and the negotiations with the EU27 remain locked in stalemate. 

sebastian.payne@ft.com

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