LONDON (AFP) – British Prime Minister Theresa May faced down a backlash against her strategy for leaving the European Union on Monday as both her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit minister David Davis resigned in protest.
Johnson warned in his letter of resignation to May that Britain was headed for the “status of colony” of the EU after it leaves in March, and said the Brexit “dream is dying”.
May responded that she was “sorry and a little surprised” by his decision but said she accepted it was necessary “if you are not able to provide the support we need to secure this deal in the interests of the United Kingdom”.
She replaced him with Health Minister Jeremy Hunt, a Japanese-speaking former entrepreneur who unlike Johnson voted for Britain to stay in the EU in the 2016 referendum.
Johnson’s dramatic resignation followed those of Davis and his deputy Steve Baker overnight over May’s plans to keep Britain economically close to the bloc.
Two parliamentary private secretaries — MPs who act as assistants to ministers — also quit their posts.
The departures, hailed by eurosceptic MPs in the ruling Conservative party, triggered speculation that May could face an imminent leadership contest.
But, appearing in the House of Commons, a confident-sounding May defended her Brexit proposals.
“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”.
She later spoke to Conservative MPs in a closed-door meeting at which she reportedly received broad support.
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 timing of the resignations of both Johnson and Davis 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 next week.