Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, the face of Brexit for many, resigned on Monday just hours after Brexit minister David Davis, emboldening some in her Conservative Party to mull a plot to unseat her less than nine months before Britain exits in March next year.
The two departures seemed to shatter May’s own proclamation of cabinet unity last Friday, when she said she believed she had, after two years of wrangling, secured agreement on Britain’s biggest foreign and trading policy shift in almost half a century.
But as Monday drew to a close, May was cheered and applauded by many Conservative MPs at a private meeting, having earlier spent more than two hours in parliament answering sometimes hostile questions.
Both eurosceptics and loyalists said she had stood her ground and appeared to have kept her job, at least for now.
The resignations did little to show the unity she wanted to present in Brussels in the next stage of negotiations on Britain’s future ties with the bloc – and the biggest shift in the country’s foreign and trade policy for decades.
Instead, they have fostered a deep distrust among many eurosceptics in her party, undermining her position and casting doubt over the Brexit process.
“Brexit should be about opportunity and hope,” Johnson said in a resignation letter. “That dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”
He complained about how “crucial decisions” had been postponed, leading to what he described as a “semi-Brexit” with Britain unable to diverge, or move away, from rules and regulations set in Brussels. “In that respect we are truly headed for the status of colony.”
May has appointed health minister Jeremy Hunt to replace Johnson.
Davis had earlier called May’s plan dangerous and said it would give “too much away, too easily” to EU negotiators. May replaced him with another Brexit campaigner, junior minister Dominic Raab, who said he was ready for “the challenges of Brexit”.
It was a rocky day for May, weakened after she lost the Conservatives’ majority in parliament in an ill-judged election last year.
But at an end-of-day meeting of her Conservative Party in parliament, May was cheered several times and business minister Greg Clark, who supports her pitch for a business-friendly Brexit, said it had gone “very well”.
During a session in parliament, May signalled that, after finally nailing her colours to a vision for Brexit, she had decided to face down the dissenters, who do not form a majority in parliament.
May’s spokesman said she would fight any attempt to unseat her.
May also called on the EU to engage with her Brexit proposal or risk Britain crashing out of the bloc without a deal.
“What we are proposing is challenging for the EU, it requires them to think again, to look beyond the positions they have taken so far and agree a new and fair balance of rights and obligations,” she told parliament.
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