David Davis has said he resigned as Brexit secretary because he could not argue for Theresa May’s Chequers proposals in good faith, but he still supports the prime minister and does not want colleagues to undermine her leadership.
Speaking after he stepped down late on Sunday, shattering the hard-won cabinet consensus on the government’s Brexit plan, Davis said it tied the UK too closely to Brussels regulations and gave an illusory return of control.
He said the idea of maintaining a common rule book for trade in goods was “painting something as returning sovereignty, returning control to the House of Commons, when in practice, it isn’t”.
“It seems to me we’re giving too much away, too easily, and that’s a dangerous strategy at this time,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Davis’s resignation was swiftly followed by that of the Department for Exiting the EU minister Steve Baker. Downing Street announced on Monday morning that Dominic Raab, formerly a housing minister, would replace Davis as Brexit secretary.
In a bluntly worded resignation letter to the prime minister, Davis said he would not be a “reluctant conscript” to the plan agreed at Chequers on Friday, which he said was “certainly not returning control of our laws in any real sense”.
His move prompted some pro-Brexit Tories to call for May to change course, or even face a leadership challenge. But Davis said this was a mistake: “I won’t be encouraging people to do that. I think it’s the wrong thing to do.”
He insisted he would not stand against May in any leadership campaign: “No, I wouldn’t throw my hat in the ring … if I’d wanted to bring down Theresa May, now would not be the time. It would have been after the election.”
Davis said: “Look, I like Theresa May, I think she’s a good prime minister. We have a difference over this strategy. She’s got to have a Brexit secretary who will deliver on her strategy. That’s not weakening, that’s actually enhancing the effectiveness of her strategy.”
Davis said his position was unique because of the job: “I would have been front and centre on delivering this policy, explaining it to the house, persuading the house it was right, and then going out and delivering it with the European Union.
“And frankly, just as it was known what the policy was, it was also known that I had concerns about it. It would not have been a plausible thing to do and I wouldn’t have done a good job at it.”
Earlier, Jeremy Hunt told Today that ministers and MPs needed to support May and her plan if they wanted to ensure Brexit happened.
“What we have to recognise is, it’s now or never,” he said. “If we are going to deliver the clean Brexit that the British people want we have to get behind Theresa May, allow her to negotiate a deal that respects what they voted for.
“If we want to leave the EU – which is what people voted for – then we have to get behind her and recognise that as prime minister she has to negotiate this and we have to support her in this process.”
May will have to confront pro-Brexit MPs in parliament on Monday knowing she has lost the backing of one of their champions in government.
MPs from the pro-Brexit wing of the Conservative party have said they are prepared to trigger a leadership contest. If at least 48 MPs send letters to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the powerful backbench 1922 Committee, he would have to call a vote of no confidence – though many of May’s supporters in the parliamentary party believe she could win it.
Dozens of Tory MPs have attended emergency briefings in Downing Street since the Chequers summit, at which Boris Johnson said it would be “polishing a turd” if they tried to defend the plan to the party and public.
The pro-Brexit MP Andrea Jenkyns said it was time for May to be replaced. “Honestly, I think yes,” she told the Today programme.
“The time has come that we need a Brexiteer prime minister, really – somebody who clearly believes in Brexit and is really prepared to deliver what the people voted for.”
Another Brexiter, Bernard Jenkin, said May had seen a “massive haemorrhage of trust” over the plan.
Labour capitalised on the turmoil in Tory ranks, with Jeremy Corbyn questioning whether May could “cling on” to power, and the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, releasing a tally of Tory resignations since autumn.
The prime minister will embark a fresh round of high-level diplomacy this week, in a bid to persuade the EU27 not to reject her plan outright.
She is expected to talk directly to European leaders including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron.
EU sources said Davis’s departure would not have a big impact on Brexit negotiations. There will, however, be concerns that his resignation means May’s hard-won Chequers compromise could collapse, because it suggests the UK’s internal negotiations are not over.
One senior EU diplomat said Davis’s resignation meant “no big change” because he “wasn’t really present recently”; Olly Robbins, the prime minister’s Europe adviser, had been doing the negotiations. The domestic implications for May were still unclear, the source said: “I hope she has a good plan.”
Davis had only attended four hours of talks since the start of the year.
Another source said diplomats were awaiting the full version of the plan in a Brexit white paper due to be published on Thursday. “It is important that the meeting in Chequers has taken place and the cabinet has defined its position.”