British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson became the second government minister to resign in 24 hours
London (AFP) - British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government imploded on Monday as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson followed Brexit minister David Davis in resigning over her plan for Britain’s future outside the European Union.
Johnson warned Britain was headed for the “status of colony” of the European Union after it leaves in March, and said the Brexit “dream is dying”.
His dramatic resignation followed those of Davis and his deputy Steve Banker overnight over May’s plans to keep Britain economically close to the bloc.
The departures, hailed by eurosceptic MPs in the ruling Conservative party, triggered speculation that May could face an imminent leadership contest.
Appearing in the House of Commons just minutes later, a confident-sounding May defended her Brexit plan.
“This is not a betrayal,” she responded to one of several eurosceptic Conservative MPs who complained, insisting it was “the right Brexit deal for Britain”.
May announced on Friday that her warring cabinet had finally agreed to a plan to follow EU rules for trade in goods, raising hopes that long-stalled talks with the bloc could progress.
The truce did not last the weekend after Davis quit on Sunday night, warning that Britain was “giving too much away too easily” in Brexit talks.
On Monday, when Johnson was supposed to be hosting a summit on the Western Balkans, Downing Street announced he had also gone.
“The government now has a song to sing. The trouble is that I have practised the words over the weekend and find they stick in the throat,” he wrote to May.
The timing could not be worse, as Britain faces a fresh diplomatic row with Russia over a nerve agent attack, and ahead of US President Donald Trump’s visit this week.
Brexit negotiations with Brussels are also expected to resume on Monday.
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May has been dealt a blow with the resignation of two ministers
Downing Street swiftly appointed eurosceptic housing minister Dominic Raab to Davis’s job, and said it expected to replace Johnson imminently.
May said she now wanted to advance the Brexit talks, saying she had briefed EU leaders on her plan in recent days and received a “positive reaction”.
- Next move -
All eyes are now on the next move by Brexit hardliners in May’s centre-right Conservative Party.
Davis himself expressed regret that Johnson had quit, and said it would “wrong” for his departure to trigger a major rebellion.
The appointment of Raab, a leading Brexit supporter, and the decision of some eurosceptic ministers to stay suggests Tory Brexiteers are divided.
Britain's former Brexit minister David Davis said it would be "wrong" if his departure led to a full-fledged government rebellion
But rumours swirled about a possible leadership challenge, amid reports that MPs were submitting letters to challenge May to the party’s influential 1922 committee.
A Downing Street spokesman confirmed that if pushed to a confidence vote, May would not resign.
May has been balancing competing factions in her party for years, but with the clock ticking down to Brexit, had to make a choice.
Her proposal would see Britain adopt EU rules for trade in goods after Brexit, but maintain flexibility for its key services sector and end freedom of movement.
Brussels has repeatedly warned it will not accept “cherry-picking” of elements of its single market.
But May said talks with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, EU president Donald Tusk and other EU leaders at the weekend suggested her plan “can ensure that we move the negotiations on”.
Juncker’s chief spokesman said the departure of Davis posed no problem, saying the EU was ready to talk “24⁄7”.
Tusk tweeted: “Politicians come and go but the problems they have created for people remain.”
“I can only regret that the idea of Brexit has not left with Davis and Johnson. But… who knows?,” he added, wondering if Britain might reject the divorce.
- ‘Reluctant conscript’ -
But many eurosceptic MPs are outraged at May’s plan, and Davis’s resignation letter was scathing.
“The general direction of policy will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one,” he said.
May’s proposals for a “common rulebook” on goods “hands control of large swathes of our economy to the EU”, he said.
Dominic Raab will replace David Davis as Brexit minister
Davis said his job required “an enthusiastic believer in your approach, and not merely a reluctant conscript”.
Speaking to BBC radio on Monday, he said he hoped Britain would “resist very strongly any attempt to get any further concessions”.
As head of the Brexit ministry, Davis was the public face of Britain’s negotiating team but in reality has been overshadowed for months by May and her aides.
He had reportedly threatened to quit several times as they moved towards closer ties with the EU after Brexit.
Brexit hardliners welcomed his move with Conservative MP Peter Bone saying: “The PM’s proposals for a Brexit in name only are not acceptable.”
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the cabinet ministers had “jumped the sinking ship”.
“For the good of this country and its people, the government needs to get its act together and do it quickly and if it can’t, make way for those who can,” he said.