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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 July 2018

UK Foreign Secretary quits over Brexit deal

Boris Johnson becomes the second high-profile casualty over Brexit meeting

Boris Johnson, UK foreign secretary, resigned on the evening of July 9, 2018. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg
Boris Johnson, UK foreign secretary, resigned on the evening of July 9, 2018. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg

The UK government was thrown into crisis on Monday after Boris Johnson became the second Cabinet minister within 24 hours to resign amid deep splits over the country’s Brexit strategy.

Premier Theresa May vowed to fight for her political survival following the departure of two charismatic figureheads of the anti-European Union wing of her party before the final crucial months of negotiations to leave the world’s largest trading bloc.

The resignation of Mr Johnson, once a frontrunner to lead the ruling Conservative party in 2016, clears the way for further potential resignations and could derail talks in the coming months.

It raises the prospect that the UK could lead the EU without a deal in place, dealing a huge blow to businesses still hoping for tariff-free access to the bloc and cutting off security and police cooperation.

Mr Johnson resigned after hours of speculation following the departure late on Sunday of David Davis, the minister charged with Britain’s negotiations with Brussels.

Their departures followed a stormy meeting on Friday at the premier’s countryside residence of Chequers where Mrs May outlined a new Brexit strategy and demanded that her ministers back her or quit.

In his resignation letter, Mr Johnson said the UK was heading for a "semi-Brexit" and was headed towards a status as an EU colony. The Brexit dream of bringing back control to the UK was "dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt," Mr Johnson said a letter to the prime minister.

The resignations ended the impression that Mrs May had pulled off a political masterstroke by pushing through her vision of Brexit while keeping rival factions of her party onside.

Many on the Eurosceptic wing of the ruling party who opposed Mrs May’s plans that they say went against her previous pledges to make a clean break from the European Union on March 29, 2019.

Some backbenchers called for a change in leadership, but officials said she would fight any attempt to unseat her.

“This afternoon, the prime minister accepted the resignation of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary,” a Downing Street spokesman said. “His replacement will be announced shortly. The prime minister thanks Boris for his work.”

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In a day of drama at Westminster, Mr Johnson’s resignation emerged in mid-afternoon after failing to show up at a West Balkans summit in London where he was expected to be questioned by journalists about this position. "We're still waiting for our host," tweeted German minister Michael Roth.

Mr Johnson's position had appeared increasingly untenable after Mr Davis told the BBC on Monday that he taken a “principled” decision to quit – and said that other ministers had to come to their own conclusions.

The foreign secretary's opposition to prime minister Mrs May's plan on leaving the EU was well-known.

Mr Johnson, a former London mayor, was hugely popular among the party’s rank-and-file but repeated gaffes meant it was a surprise when Mrs May appointed him as foreign secretary.

He has since been embroiled in controversy after setting his own agenda on Brexit that was often at odds with the government’s public position. He faced previous calls to be sacked after erroneous comments about a Briton jailed in Iran worsened her plight behind bars, according to her family. But Mrs May’s wafer-thin parliamentary majority made it difficult for her to sack him.

Mr Johnson is seen as one of the most likely potential challengers if backbenchers decide to trigger a leadership election. He had been the figurehead of the Leave campaign for the 2016 referendum and dramatically pulled away from an expected run for the leadership in 2016 after losing the support of his fellow minister Michael Gove.

Mrs May addressed parliament minutes after Mr Johnson’s departure was announced and was greeted by laughter when she paid tribute to the “passion he demonstrated in promoting a global Britain to the world”.

The leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn said the ruling Conservative party had been riven by two years of “soundbites, indecision and cabinet infighting”.

He added: “The Chequers compromise took two years to reach and just two days to unravel.”

The two outgoing ministers are part of the Eurosceptic "Brexiteer" wing of the party who have argued for a complete severing of links with EU institutions. Other factions within the party wanted to keep closer trading links with the remaining 27 nations, even if that meant abiding by some of the bloc’s rules.

Hours after he quit his job, Mr Davis claimed that the government was giving away too much, too easily in a stinging broadside against the prime minister's “dangerous” strategy. Mr Davis’s deputy, Steve Baker, also quit.

Mr Davis’s job will be taken by Dominic Raab, a Eurosceptic minister. A replacement for Mr Johnson was expected to be announced later.

The developments prompted European Council President Donald Tusk to raise the idea that Brexit might be called off, in a tweet on Monday. Mr 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?"