LONDON (Reuters) – Two leading eurosceptic ministers have quit British Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet, calling into question her ability to deliver the vision of continued close ties with the European Union that she said they had agreed to last week.
May’s office said it had accepted Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s resignation on Monday, hours after Brexit minister David Davis, in charge of exit negotiations with the bloc, quit on Sunday night.
The two departures shatter May’s own proclamation of cabinet unity last Friday, when 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.
May’s spokesman said she would fight any attempt to unseat her over her Brexit plan, which was welcomed by business leaders but angered leading Conservative eurosceptics by proposing to keep Britain closely aligned with EU regulations in goods trade, although not services – Britain’s main export sector.
By late afternoon, the pound was down more than 0.5 percent against the dollar and 0.4 percent against the euro on the resignation of Johnson, figurehead of the 2016 referendum campaign to quit the EU.
Traders said there was a growing risk of a leadership challenge that could usher in a new prime minister who backed a harder break with the EU.
May addressed parliament minutes after her office announced Johnson’s departure, saying: “In the two years since the referendum, we have had a spirited national debate, with robust views echoing around the cabinet table as they have on breakfast tables up and down the country.
“Over that time, I’ve listened to every possible idea and every possible version of Brexit. Mr Speaker, this is the right Brexit,” she said, to jeers from the opposition Labour Party.
In resigning on Sunday, Davis 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.
The departures were likely to fuel a noisy rebellion among Conservative Brexit campaigners who say she has betrayed a promise to pursue a clean break.
But her speech in parliament signalled that, after finally nailing her colours to a vision of Brexit, she had decided to face down the dissenters, who probably do not constitute a majority of Conservative members of parliament.
She was welcomed with applause and cheers as she arrived at a meeting of the Conservatives’ 1922 Committee of lawmakers.
May also urged 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.
With less than nine months left before Britain is due to leave the EU, and just over three before the EU says it wants a deal, European Council President Donald Tusk raised the idea that Brexit might be called off.
“Politicians come and go but the problems they have created for people remain,” he tweeted.
“I can only regret that the idea of Brexit has not left with Davis and Johnson. But … who knows?”
May had been reluctant to spell out her strategy until now precisely for fear of igniting furious rows in her deeply divided Conservative Party.
Many eurosceptics accused her of siding with the “Remainers” in her cabinet – those who voted in 2016 to stay in the EU and have demanded a Brexit that would preserve the complicated supply chains used by many of Britain’s biggest companies.
They fear a clean break would cost jobs.
But the ardent Brexit supporters say the deal May is now proposing to negotiate could leave Britain still accepting EU rules and regulations, but without being able to influence them.
“It’s imperative we do Brexit right, no half measures!” tweeted Scottish Conservative lawmaker Ross Thomson.
May insisted that her proposals would honour the will of the British people, as expressed in the In/Out referendum, by ending free movement of people, the jurisdiction of the European Court and “vast” payments to the bloc.
“This is not a betrayal … I believe that is what people voted for when they voted to leave and we will deliver in faith with the British people,” she said.
She said she would now focus on moving the exit negotiations on – a step EU officials and businesses have long called for. And she reiterated her position that there would not be a referendum on the final deal to leave the European Union, or any attempt to put back the exit date of March 29, 2019.
But it is still not clear whether the EU will accept her negotiating bid on a free trade area for goods.
Brussels is determined not to allow Britain to “cherry-pick” elements of EU membership, which might encourage other countries to follow it out of the door.