Theresa May fights to contain Brexit crisis after Boris Johnson and David Davis quit
The foreign secretary’s resignation on Monday sends a strong message to those who voted for Brexit in 2016 that their decision is being betrayed
Prime Minister Theresa May battled to stave off a full-blown crisis after three ministers quit within 24 hours to protest her Brexit plan.
The resignation of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, the face of the campaign to leave the European Union in 2016, compounded the chaos in government following the departures of Brexit Secretary David Davis and his deputy late Sunday. May’s statement to Parliament on Brexit, which was meant to crown a rare compromise deal reached with her divided Cabinet on Friday, was turned into a two-hour defense of her policy of seeking a softer divorce from the EU.
But the immediate danger appeared to have receded as pro-Brexit lawmakers held back from calling May to go, emphasizing instead the need for a new policy. Graham Brady, head of the Conservative Party committee that handles the procedures for leadership challenges, also indicated he hadn’t received enough signatures to trigger a confidence vote in the prime minister.
“If the threshold were to be reached, at some point it would be incumbent on me to make arrangements for a vote of confidence,” Brady told Bloomberg. “People would know fairly quickly.”
In the House of Commons, May twice batted away the question of whether she would fight a leadership challenge, and denied her Brexit proposal — which she said would protect the economy — was a betrayal of the referendum result.
“Nice try, but I’m getting on with delivering what the British people want,” she said. Minutes later, she was asked if she expected more resignations. “There is only one interest in jobs that this government has, and that’s the jobs of the people of this country and ensuring prosperity,” she said.
High-profile resignations can unleash leadership challenges in the U.K., and the fact that Johnson — or those around him — made sure his resignation statement came out in time for the evening news and before it was formally issued in the traditional way by May’s office, hints at his continued interest in taking May’s position.
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Johnson’s resignation letter amounted to a savage attack on May’s record, accusing her government of postponing “crucial decisions” and not doing enough to prepare for a potential “no-deal” departure from the EU.
“The dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt,” Johnson wrote. “It is as though we are sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above them.”
Straight after her appearance in the Commons, May went to a packed meeting of rank-and-file Tory lawmakers, where she spoke and took questions for an hour about her plan. There were loud cheers at the end of the gathering, during which there were some voices of dissent, according to one lawmaker as he left the room. Loyalist business secretary Greg Clark told reporters May did “very well indeed.”
Even so, hardline Brexit backers in the Conservative Party are meeting later Monday to decide on their strategy. May’s decision to brief Labour lawmakers on her Brexit plan, an apparent effort to try to count on opposition votes if her own side lets her down, has infuriated euroskeptic Tories.
Just on Friday, May announced she had secured the backing of her whole Cabinet for her Brexit proposal and told ministers to either back it or resign. It was a rare consensus, following talks at her Chequers country retreat about the way forward — a move meant to kick-start talks with the EU that have been stalled for months.
Ministers signed off on a blueprint for a new U.K.-EU “free trade area,” with interwoven customs regimes, and identical regulations for industrial and agri-food goods. Critics in May’s Conservative Party said the plan would bind Britain to EU rules and prevent signing trade deals with countries outside the bloc.