Theresa May's cabinet is highly divided between soft-Brexiteers and hard-Brexiteers. She clearly belongs to the former (she was actually against Brexit before the referendum), whereas people like David Davis, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove belong to the latter.

What I don't understand is why, even up until this stage, in which there is little time left to reach a deal, May is still working with a totally split cabinet. Why not say "enough is enough", and sack hard-Brexiteers, and go directly for a soft-Brexit, which is what she wants anyway?

Maybe in the beginning it made senss to have a widespread range of views in cabinet (and maybe she was elected as PM precisely on the condition of such inclusivity). But it seems evident to me that a hard-Brexit (as in a Brexit that involves a formal deal with the EU) is no longer possible, that time is running out, and that if no major change happens, the UK will crash out of the EU (what we might call a very hard-Brexit, which is something many hard-Brexiteers would be happy with).

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    Prime Ministers don't normally give reasons for hiring ministers. Its probably an application of "keep friends close, but enemies closer". But as asked this is about internal motivations. It could probably be edited to make it on topic.
    – James K
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 8:28
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    Comments deleted. This is not the place to discuss Brexit. Please only post comments when you want to request clarifications or have suggestions how the question could be improved.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 18:47
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    You are making two incompatible claims, namely (1) mere inaction may bring about a hard-Brexit, (2) hard-Brexit is impossible.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 23:45
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    Another related question is “Why are they not resigning?”
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jul 4, 2018 at 7:28
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    Because the hardliner brexiters have resigned out of their own accord ;-)
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 17:51

4 Answers 4


May is in a very precarious, weak position which prevents her from firing openly rebellious MPs such as Boris Johnson.

She called an election in 2017 which went extremely badly. She started with a decent majority and ended up with a minority government, propped up with a £1.5bn bribe to the DUP.

As a result of this she needs the support of all her MPs, or risks losing votes in the Commons which would likely result in her being forced to resign at a minimum and possibly the fall of her government.

Therefore she cannot upset any faction within the Tory party too much. Firing someone like Boris or Gove would upset the Brexit extremists, of which there are enough to force a leadership challenge at the very least.

Effectively she is being held hostage by both hard line Brexiteers and the majority who want a softer, less damaging Brexit, and by the DUP who don't want a hard Irish border or customs frontier in the Irish sea, and by the Lords who keep forcing votes on amendments, and by the EU who keep rejecting her outlandish and unrealistic proposals, and by the looming deadline for doing a deal.

The whole thing is balanced on a knife edge and firing an extremist would cause the whole thing to come crashing down around her.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 9:19

Firing the "hard" Brexit supporters would allow them to criticise the government while claiming that Brexit would have been more successful if it had been lead by them. Theresa May is beholden to these MP's and does not have the political support of her party in terms of taking these actions. Firing any MP would lead to a rebellion within the Conservative party that would most likely bring down the current government, which is directly contrary to the aims of a political party (to stay in power)

It's also worth noting that the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has made Labour position such that it mirrors some of the "hard" Brexit arguments and if Theresa May was to fire them, it would play straight into the hands of the opposition.

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    I'm confused by your second paragraph. Corbyns Brexit proposal is softer than the government position, for example, it is Labour policy to seek a UK-EU customs union.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 14:58
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    @gerrit He said "some", not "all". If May decides to offer a "medium Brexit", but Corbyn offers a mostly "soft Brexit" with a handful of "hard Brexit" policies added in then - depending on which policies are Hard/Soft - he can pull in both Hard and Soft Brexiteers whose "Key Policies" match his option, even if the other policies that they consider less important are the opposite. Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 16:37

When David Cameron gave in to pressure and promised to have a referendum on EU membership, it was in the hope that it would keep his party together. The threat of UKIP was looking like the Conservatives could never win a parliamentary majority again. So, although he personally believed that leaving the EU would be catastrophically bad for the UK, he was prepared to take that risk.

Some people have said he's the worst prime minister that the UK has ever had, for this reason alone. Even if you think Brexit is a good thing, I'm sure everyone agrees that a PM who's willing to risk what he thinks is the "worst case scenario" for the country just so that his political party can survive is a pretty sorry excuse for a leader.

Now when May took over, if she had not given those powerful positions in cabinet to the hard brexiteers, the whole exercise would have been for nothing... the country would still face the risks of Brexit and the party would still be divided. Plus, as Andi said, those guys would all have been able to claim "Brexit was a good idea - they just did it wrong".

As things stand, the party looks to be as divided as ever. Some would say it's their just desserts. But if May was to fire any of those guys, it certainly wouldn't help to heal the division in the party.

  • So having the hard-Brexiteers in cabinet is the only option to "show the public" the government is committed to a "real Brexit", even if there is some transition period or any other sort of soft-Brexit? This is, to make any final deal gullible, hard-Brexiteers need to have been part of the process? Sound a very interesting political strategy, actually.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Jul 4, 2018 at 8:25

The Brexiteers made a series of impossible claims during the referendum campaign, to the point of outright and provable lies. They also promised fundamentally incompatible Brexits to different groups of potential supporters.

This makes the Brexit that was promised impossible to deliver.

If anyone other than the Brexiteers attempts and fail then the Brexiteers can continue to blame everyone but themselves. The only way to prevent that is to put them in charge of the mess and then when the train wreck happens they are the ones left to take the blame.

This means that from a political maneuvering point of view (and in particular the internal party politics of the Conservative party) putting them in charge is the only way for May out of that particular dilemma. Whatever happens (hard, soft, complete failure, etc) they are the ones on the hook for it. If (when) they fail, she can then try to step in and try to get them to accept Brexit that she desires.

Of course the problem with that is that we (as the people living in the UK or UK citizens living in Europe) are all on the train that is about to crash. She's making the right move for herself and for her party but risking the entire country to do it.

You can already see the wriggling beginning as the Brexiteers try to blame everyone but themselves for the failures. It's all the "saboteurs" and "enemy of the people" holding them back from the glorious Brexit Nirvana waiting just over the horizon.

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    Agreed on all counts. Unfortunately there are enough Hard-Brexiteers who remain "off the hook" (e.g. JRM) that they will still be able to agitate even after those in positions of power have had to admit defeat.
    – Martin
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 9:05
  • @Martin Sometimes I wish our predictions were less accurate. Sure enough she made the mistake of stepping in to try and sort out the mess and now it's all remainer's fault.
    – Tim B
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 8:34

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