The government of British Prime Minister Theresa May was plunged into turmoil today with the resignation of two senior Cabinet ministers, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, signalling a growing split over her strategy to quit the European Union next year. Johnson, the poster boy in the Cabinet for pro-Brexit ministers, quit, hours after the resignation of the minister in charge of Brexit negotiations, David Davis.
Their decision to leave the government came three days after May appeared to have agreed a deal with her fractured Cabinet on the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU. That plan is now in tatters and her political future appears uncertain.
Johnson did not arrive at the Foreign Office near Downing Street this morning, triggering speculation over further trouble ahead for the embattled prime minister. “This afternoon, the Prime Minister accepted the resignation of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. His replacement will be announced shortly. The Prime Minister thanks Boris for his work,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.
The UK is due to leave the 28-member European Union on March 29, 2019, but the two sides have yet to agree how trade will work between them afterwards. It had been widely reported that Johnson was not supportive of May’s latest Brexit plans, thrashed out at a crucial meeting last Friday. However, there seemed to have been a shaky truce in place until Brexit minister Davis, resigned from the Cabinet stating policy differences over her exit plan from the European Union, but insisted that he had no plans of backing a revolt against May.
The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU said he remained “unpersuaded” about the government’s negotiating position, just days after the prime minister had rallied her Cabinet to a crucial away day at her country retreat, Chequers, to thrash out a “collective” position on the issue. Speaking amid a charged up House of Commons, May paid tribute to Johnson’s “passion” in championing a global Britain after Brexit and Davis’ work in steering through key Brexit legislation, but added that “we do not agree on the best way to deliver our shared commitments to honour the result of the referendum.”
Indicating that she has no plans of retreat, she reiterated that the plan agreed by the Cabinet at Chequers last Friday was the basis of a “responsible and credible” offer to restart renegotiations with the EU. The opposition Labour Party has said that after two key resignations from the Cabinet, the prime minister’s leadership mandate seemed to be non-existent.
May quickly announced a replacement for Davis, with Dominic Raab taking charge of day to day negotiations as the new Brexit minister. Raab, previously housing minister in the Cabinet, has been promoted largely because he was a prominent Leave campaigner during the 2016 EU referendum and likely to appeal to grumbling hard-Brexit MPs. In his resignation letter, Davis said it looked “less and less likely” the Conservative party would deliver on the Brexit result and the commitment to leave the EU Customs Union and Single Market – dubbed by many as a “soft” Brexit.
“The general direction of policy will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one. I am also unpersuaded that our negotiating approach will not just lead to further demands for concession,” Davis wrote in the letter addressed to May. He ends by saying May needs “an enthusiastic believer in your approach, and not merely a reluctant conscript”. Davis accused the premier of “giving away too much, too easily” to negotiators in Brussels. Davis’ exit has led to intense activity among hard Brexiteer Tory MPs already unhappy with May’s Brexit strategy, to raise rallying cries for a replacement.
In her own letter, May thanked Davis for his service, but adds: “I do not agree with your characterization of the policy we agreed at Cabinet on Friday.” Hitting back at his claims, May sets out 12 points “how we will deliver on the result of the referendum and the commitments we made in our manifesto”. She is set to face her disgruntled party MPs at a meeting of the powerful backbench 1922 Committee. A leadership contest would be triggered if 48 Conservative MPs formally submit letters, with some reportedly already sent to the committee.
Key differences within the Tories remain over how far the UK should prioritise the economy by compromising on issues. Davis’ departure from the Department for Exiting the European Union, which he set up from scratch after his appointment in the wake of the Brexit referendum in June 2016, was followed by the resignation of another Brexit junior minister, Steve Baker. The latest move is expected to put pressure on other Eurosceptic ministers, already toying with the idea of whether to resign over what is being perceived as a soft Brexit strategy by May.
This has led to growing doubts about whether the British Prime Minister, already functioning on a slim majority, has the votes to push her Brexit plan through Parliament should a deal be reached with the EU in the coming months. The prospect of Brexiteer Tories joining forces with Opposition parties, despite their own differences, to throw out the deal now seem more and more likely. This would leave the entire Brexit process in chaos as the March 29, 2019 deadline for Britain’s exit from the economic bloc nears.