LONDON: British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resigned on Monday hours after the Brexit minister stepped down, in a major blow to Prime Minister Theresa May and her plans for leaving the EU.
In a two-page letter to May, Johnson warned that the Brexit "dream is dying" and Britain is "headed for the status of colony" with its plan to stay close to the EU.
He said that while he initially accepted the government's proposal, it now "sticks in the throat".
"Brexit should be about opportunity and hope. It should be a chance to do things differently, to be more nimble and dynamic, and to maximise the particular advantages of the UK as an open, outward-looking global economy," he wrote.
"That dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt."
May's office announced earlier in the day that she had accepted the resignation, shortly after Brexit minister David Davis stepped down.
Jeremy Hunt, the long-serving health minister, was named as Johnson's replacement. While Johnson was one of the most high-profile Brexit campaigners, Hunt backed "Remain" during the 2016 referendum campaign.
In private, Johnson had reportedly criticized May’s plan for retaining strong economic ties to the EU even after Brexit.
Since cabinet approval for the plan on Friday, however, he had refrained from public comment.
He was due to co-host a summit on the Western Balkans in London on Monday but did not show up.
The two resignations leave May badly exposed at the top of a government unable to unite over Britain’s biggest foreign and trading policy shift in almost half a century.
It also puts a question mark over whether the leader will try to weather the resignations and stand firm in her commitment to pursue a “business friendly” Brexit, or will be faced with more challenges to her authority and calls to quit herself.
Addressing parliament just minutes after her office announced that Johnson had quit, May told MPs she appreciated the work of her two ministers.
She added with a hint of irony: “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.
May believed she had secured a hard-won agreement with her deeply divided cabinet of ministers on Friday to keep the closest possible trading ties with the EU.
But it soon began to unravel, when Davis resigned late on Sunday and launched a no-holds-barred attack on her plan, calling it “dangerous” and one which would give “too much away, too easily” to EU negotiators, who would simply ask for more.
With Johnson’s resignation, a noisy rebellion among the ranks could gather steam. Many Brexit campaigners in her Conservative Party say she has betrayed her promise to pursue a clean break with the EU.
In response to the resignations, European Council President Donald Tusk raised the idea that Brexit might be called off, writing on Twitter: “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?”
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?— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) July 9, 2018
The resignations come less than nine months before Britain leaves and just over three before the EU says it wants a deal.
Her earlier reluctance to spell out her strategy was for fear of encouraging exactly this — angering one of the two factions in her Conservative Party that have sparred with each other since Britain voted to leave at a 2016 referendum.
Many euroskeptics accused her of siding with the “Remainers” in her cabinet — those who voted to stay in the EU and have been lobbying for 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 on the other side of the party divide, they feel that her words have not been matched by her deeds, proposing to negotiate a deal which could leave Britain still accepting EU rules and regulations without being able to influence them.
Johnson’s tenure as foreign secretary has been dominated by Brexit and his fractious relationship with May.
On the Middle East, he attempted to take a tougher line on Syria.
In February, the foreign secretary backed airstrikes against the Syrian government in response to the use of chemical weapons. Two months later, Britain joined France and the US in a joint military operation against targets in the country.
Johnson came under fire last year after a gaffe that was seized upon by the Iranian government to strengthen their case against a dual British Iranian charity worker accused of being a spy.
In March, he praised the sweeping reform program in Saudi Arabia during a visit to the UK by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
*With Reuters and AFP