The latest news is that (Foreign Secretary) Boris Johnson has followed in the footsteps of David Davis:

He is the second senior cabinet minister to quit within hours following Brexit Secretary David Davis's exit.

How exactly did they diverge from May's position on Brexit, which seemed pretty limited anyway, just a free trade area for goods, as reported by Reuters three days ago:

After an hours-long meeting at her Chequers country residence, May seemed to have persuaded the most vocal Brexit campaigners in the cabinet to back her plan to press for “a free trade area for goods” with the EU and maintain close trade ties.

The agreed proposal - which also says Britain’s large services sector will not have the current levels of access to EU markets - will not come soon enough for Brussels, which has been pressing May to come up with a detailed vision for future ties.

But the hard-won compromise may yet fall flat with EU negotiators.

By also committing to ending free movement of people, the supremacy of the European court and “vast” payments to the bloc, May could be accused of “cherry-picking” the best bits of the EU by Brussels officials, who are determined to send a strong signal to other countries not to follow Britain out of the door.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier welcomed the agreement but added on Twitter: “We will assess proposals to see if they are workable and realistic.”

What did Davis and Johnson want (instead)?

  • 31
    The question makes the dubious assumption that they know what they want, beyond "well, not that..."
    – ceejayoz
    Jul 9, 2018 at 16:56
  • 18
    @Fizz You might be surprised.
    – gerrit
    Jul 9, 2018 at 17:47
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    It's not obvious that what they want are well-defined and stable policy goals. Other possibilities include: Political influence, protecting their image or getting more (from the EU, from May...) than whatever is on offer at the moment.
    – Relaxed
    Jul 9, 2018 at 17:53
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    @Fizz We're talking about the guy who thought he could negotiate separate trade deals with EU members, remember? Considering that he apparently didn't know how the EU worked at such a basic level at the time of the Brexit vote, I don't see how one could assume he could've had a workable, realistic plan.
    – Voo
    Jul 9, 2018 at 18:52
  • 6
    @Voo I actually didn't know that. It does put things in a certain perspective... Jul 9, 2018 at 19:28

5 Answers 5


The extremist Brexiteers want what is known as a "hard" Brexit, which involves at a minimum the following:

  • The end of the jurisdiction of the European Court over anything in the UK
  • The end of freedom of movement of labour
  • The ability to do trade deals with other non-EU countries on any terms that the UK wants

The proposal put forward by Ms. May would not have brought all those things, because it was attempting to balance economic considerations such as access to the EU market and minimal/no customs checks on goods against the desires of those wanting an extreme Brexit.

May wants:

  • Some harmonization with the EU on standards for goods, to avoid needing customs checks. This would necessarily require the European Court to have to jurisdiction.

  • A soft border with Ireland, which means no ability to fully control the UK's external border and accepting customs rules from the EU with no say in them.

  • Some limited freedom of movement. One example given was to allow nuclear scientists to visit UK nuclear power plants in an emergency, but in practical terms it will mostly be to allow big companies to keep hiring skilled workers from the EU without going through the nightmarish UK visa system.

Essentially May's plan is to put the UK in a worse position that it is inside the EU in terms of control and sovereignty, but to fudge it to look superficially like she has delivered the undefined "brexit means brexit" that people imagine they voted for.

  • 1
    Is the claim that the trade deals the EU has struck with non-EU countries somehow are bad for the UK? I mean the UK can and does currently trade all over the world. If that is the claim, do they give any examples of trade deals that are bad for the UK?
    – Simd
    Jul 10, 2018 at 9:22
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    The EU trade deals are good, May wants to adopt them after Brexit on a copy/paste basis which is clearly a fantasy as they are reliant on the EU standards we want to abandon. The extremists seem to take the Trump attitude that we can renegotiate better deals because every other country will be desperate to do that, which is a delusion of grandeur.
    – user
    Jul 10, 2018 at 10:52
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    Sounds like pretty much if I cannot have my way 100% then I will take my ball and bat and go home. Isolation will not work either, but neither will throwing temper tantrums like they have been doing. A compromise in which no one ends up completely happy is the best they can expect, but won't accept.
    – DCook
    Jul 10, 2018 at 14:05
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    You should be on the Today Programme.
    – Strawberry
    Jul 10, 2018 at 16:41
  • @Anush You're asking the wrong question. No, there aren't any trade deals that we have that mainstream Tory Brexiteers think are worse for the UK than not having them; the globalist free-market Tories who supported Brexit see freer trade as positive. Rather, the entire point is the trade deals we don't have because of our membership of the Customs Union. Yes, we "currently trade all over the world", just as if we leave the single market we will still "trade with the EU", but it's a question of how freely we do so.
    – Mark Amery
    Jul 22, 2018 at 11:58

While demands shift over time, in February 61 hardline brexiteers (harder than David Davis) pushed for full regulatory autonomy (including leaving all European Safety Organizations) as well as some changes to how the transition would be handled, whereas May's plan would tie the UK to EU regulations on some goods in exchange for the Free Trade Agreement. Others want completely out of the single market. May has been struggling for quite some time to balance the demands of hardline brexiteers with more pro-EU MPs. There were also differences in negotiation strategy, with May being more willing to compromise on some issues including movement of peoples and the European Court of Justice. Lastly, there is substantial speculation that Johnson in particular is gearing up for a leadership challenge, coloring the entire incident as well.

  • The last Politico piece also says the two resignations were uncoordinated (according to Davis). Davis was pretty ambiguous as to his own, just chalking it up to strategy differences (according to that last piece). I guess we might find out more in the upcoming days. Jul 9, 2018 at 16:09
  • 4
    Davis in particular has been quite cagey. He seemed like a hardliner at first, but supported the government's more moderate plan before abruptly leaving. More might come out soon, but it's equally possible we never know the full story.
    – Eremi
    Jul 9, 2018 at 16:22
  • 1
    @Eremi: In a UK-style parliamentary democracy, a cabinet minister must "support" the government's position. When he/she can't any longer, resignation is really the only option. Cabinet solidarity is pretty much a given; it doesn't work if one minister is vocally in opposition to government policy.
    – Flydog57
    Jul 10, 2018 at 14:30

At the moment it's difficult to know exactly what they each wanted. In his resignation letter David Davis laid out the issues he felt that his and the government positions diverged significantly.

At each stage I have accepted collective responsibility because it is part of my task to find workable compromises, and because I considered it was still possible to deliver on the mandate of the referendum, and on our manifesto commitment to leave the Customs Union and the Single Market.

I am afraid that I think the current trend of policy and tactics is making that look less and less likely.


In my view the inevitable consequence of the proposed policies will be to make the supposed control by Parliament illusory rather than real.

As I said at Cabinet, the "common rule book" policy hands control of large swathes of our economy to the EU and is certainly not returning control of our laws in any real sense.

I am also unpersuaded that our negotiating approach will not just lead to further demands for concessions.

Davis' position seems to be that he's been asked to move further and further away from his own goals over time and it has now gone too far. He seems to think that even if the UK achieves all the aims set out at Friday's cabinet meeting, it will not represent actually leaving the EU.


I'm aware of Davis' (rather ambiguous) official letter, but I also find an analysis in the Spectator fairly plausible. According to that Davis quit because he wanted

  • a trade agreement with less (or no) EU regulatory oversight (unlike that proposed at Chequers) and
  • he felt sidelined for quite some time before Chequers

Davis has gone because he could not stomach the opening UK negotiating position agreed at Chequers. Davis has long been clear that he wanted a final deal that was, essentially, a souped-up version of the Canada free trade deal. But the position agreed at Chequers envisaged a relationship very different to that, one far more firmly in the EU’s regulatory orbit. As Brexit Secretary Davis was meant to promote the Chequers plan at home and abroad. He clearly didn’t feel that he could do that.

In truth. Davis has long been side-lined in developing the government’s negotiating position. Theresa May has come to rely more and more on her civil service sherpa, Olly Robbins, for advice. Recently, one well placed Tory told me that David had been ‘goaded beyond endurance’ by this. If the Brexit Secretary is not the key influence on the Prime Minister’s thinking on the deal the UK is aiming for and how to get there, then they are not doing their job—or being allowed to do it.

Johnson did not mince words. As reported in the Guardian

Boris Johnson has quit as foreign secretary, claiming in his resignation letter that the UK was headed “for the status of a colony” if Theresa May’s soft Brexit plans were adopted. [...]

Johnson wrote that he believed May’s new plan amounted to “a semi-Brexit” with large parts of the economy “locked in the EU system, but with no UK control over that system”.

At least he seems consistent on what he saw as the show stopper (EU law & regulations). An editorial from February in the same newspaper said

After that [transition or – as he preferred to call it – implementation period] period, however, he is determined there should be no obligation to observe EU rules that the UK has not had a voice in shaping. There will be no membership of the single market or the customs union, although he did allow that some harmonisation on manufacturing might be desirable.

The BBC has a full transcript of his letter (and May's reply). And additional point I drew from there is that Johnson wanted some preparations for a "no deal" scenario, but these were not accepted by May. It seems he wanted this "no deal" to be the default or opening position of the UK in the negotiations with the EU, rather than what May proposed.

We have postponed crucial decisions - including the preparations for no deal, as I argued in my letter to you of last November - with the result that we appear to be heading for a semi-Brexit, with large parts of the economy still locked in the EU system, but with no UK control over that system.

So at the previous Chequers session we thrashed out an elaborate procedure for divergence from EU rules. But even that now seems to have been taken off the table, and there is in fact no easy UK right of initiative. Yet if Brexit is to mean anything, it must surely give ministers and Parliament the chance to do things differently to protect the public. [...]

It is also clear that by surrendering control over our rulebook for goods and agrifoods (and much else besides) we will make it much more difficult to do free trade deals. And then there is the further impediment of having to argue for an impractical and undeliverable customs arrangement unlike any other in existence.

What is even more disturbing is that this is our opening bid. This is already how we see the end state for the UK - before the other side has made its counter-offer. It is as though we are sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above them. Indeed, I was concerned, looking at Friday's document, that there might be further concessions on immigration, or that we might end up effectively paying for access to the single market.


CAVET: The answers here seem to be a cynical dalliance of the crucial issues, adding to the confusion. Because I happen to know David Davis personally and UKIP is pretty much run from our village - I've logged on to answer the question: (However I fully expect to be downvoted/removed/punished for this)

It is incredibly simple to define what Brexit is:

It is the Exit of the United Kingdom from the EU.

That's it.

There is no such thing as Hard Brexit or Soft Brexit

Contrary to popular belief this process is happening and is already ratified and (due to the Act of Parliament - European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017) So Brexit will go ahead regardless with or without terms with the EU.

The UK Government are trying to form terms with the EU. The EU are blocking it.

Note that any such terms would have to be voted on by the House of Commons as a new treaty.

History lesson:

One of only 2 historical net contributors to the EU the UK is an important member. For forty years Germany and the UK alone have funded it. To protect against trade issues the UK Government has for over 2 years attempted to draft an EU trade agreement. Money for access. However the EU is a political (not financial) institution that has split aims. Financial and Political agendas are at odds in Brussels: Financially it is a huge necessity for the EU to be a trading partner with the UK (the books won't balance otherwise). But Politically it's suicide to allow the UK to prosper, because if "life outside the EU" is better then the EU will die (due to currency issues, mass immigration and democratic distancing).

What the press aren't telling you:

It is crucially important to realise that the UK is set to benefit both Politically and Economically outside the EU. Whereas the EU will have only normal normal Financial Continuation to look forward to with an agreement (but will Politically self destruct if there is one).

Simply put the EU would rather take the probable risk of a financial collapse (without its major contributor) ahead of certain risk institutional collapse should the UK succeed. This isn't hyperbole: the EU hasn't even countenanced producing budgets that resemble the income drop once the UK leaves - it's that bad they don't want to shed light on it.

Daily political pressure is being applied to the UK by the EU because they want the referendum result reversed.


The 'hard liners' are not hard liners. They are MP's who want to reflect the outcome of the referendum and explore a treaty with the EU not sign off on a series of EU demands that would never get through parliament, and betray our national interest, and make us an undemocratic institution.

  • 2
    So to redefine the two words then: hard and soft both want the Brexit. "soft" means that right afterwards (or even bound together with the exit), several currently valid regulations and contracts should be "similarly" established with the EU while "hard" means that no of only a few contracts similar to the existing ones should be established. Et voila. You may want to change your answer accordingly, because there is hard and soft ;)
    – Mayou36
    Jul 10, 2018 at 16:33
  • Arguing there's no such thing as a "soft Brexit" is like arguing that if my lease expires tomorrow and I sign a new one with roughly the same terms (and for the same place) on the same day, I have technically left the house... for a little bit. A term for you to google "Brexit in name only". Jul 10, 2018 at 16:56
  • 8
    There is nothing that I can find here that actually answers the rather straightforward question What did Davis and Johnson want (instead)?.
    – JdeBP
    Jul 10, 2018 at 17:31
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    @JdeBP it's in bold: here is the answer It is the Exit of the United Kingdom from the EU. again in case you didn't see it
    – Mr Heelis
    Jul 11, 2018 at 8:30
  • @Fizz there is no such thing as Hard Brexit and Soft Brexit those terms were made up by the media and the remainers (one and the same I'm afraid, despite being the proven minority) just like there is no Hard Agreement / Soft Agreement between Iceland and Japan,.. it's simply nonsense in every other context
    – Mr Heelis
    Jul 11, 2018 at 8:32

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