British Prime Minister Theresa May held what she said was a “productive” meeting of her new cabinet on Tuesday, before being hit by new resignations within her ruling Conservative party over her strategy for leaving the European Union.
The prime minister chaired the first meeting of the cabinet since foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit minister David Davis quit in protest over her Brexit plans agreed last week.
“Productive cabinet meeting this morning — looking ahead to a busy week,” May said on Twitter, as the resignations of Johnson and Davis sent shockwaves through Westminster and fuelled speculation that the turmoil could eventually topple her.
Within hours, two top officials from the Conservative party — Ben Bradley and Maria Caulfield — also quit, warning that close links with Europe after Brexit could trigger a public backlash.
May has faced anger from Brexit hardliners in her party who say her plan makes too many concessions to the EU.
Johnson, who wrote in his resignation letter that the Brexit “dream is dying” and that Britain was headed for the “status of colony” under May’s leadership, is seen as a potential challenger.
However, she has support from moderates and there has been no formal challenge to her leadership so far.
At a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in London later Tuesday, May vowed to deliver a “smooth and orderly Brexit that protects jobs, livelihoods and also meets our commitment for no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.”
Merkel welcomed the fact that Britain had formulated a position to take into stalled negotiations with the EU.
“We want to bring the negotiating process forward,” she said. “It’s a good thing that we have proposals on the table.”
‘A friend of mine’
Rumours have swirled over possible further cabinet resignations but experts said May appeared to have weathered the crisis for now.
“I don’t see them pulling the plug on her,” Polly Mackenzie, director of cross-party think-tank Demos, told AFP.
“Everybody who wants to be the prime minister wants Theresa May to guide that process through until March so that (they) could take over and say ‘what’s passed is passed’. So I think she’ll stay.”
May’s Conservative opponents could trigger a leadership contest if at least 48 MPs support it, but to actually formally force her from office, 159 MPs would have to vote against her — a figure hardliners may not be able to reach.
May has said she will fight off any attempt to unseat her.
US President Donald Trump, asked about the unfolding drama ahead of his visit to Britain later this week, said it appeared “in somewhat turmoil”.
“Boris Johnson is a friend of mine,” he added. “He’s been very, very nice to me, very supportive. Maybe I’ll speak to him when I get over there.”
The Kremlin said it hoped for an improvement in ties following the departure of Johnson, who had angered Moscow with his vociferous accusations over the poisoning with a nerve agent of a Russian spy on English soil in March.
“Unfortunately his contribution to the development of bilateral ties with Russia was rather modest, to put it mildly,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
The gaffe-prone Johnson was quickly replaced Monday by 51-year-old former health minister Jeremy Hunt, who unlike Johnson supported staying in the European Union in the 2016 referendum.
Dominic Raab, a Brexit supporter and former housing minister, was appointed to replace Davis.
Hunt said it was a moment to show that Britain remained a “strong, confident voice in the world”.
He said he would “stand four square behind the prime minister so that we can get through an agreement with the European Union based on what was agreed by the cabinet last week”.
Striking a deal
The plan agreed at May’s country retreat at Chequers near London last Friday would involve Britain pursuing a “UK-EU free trade area” for goods that would involve regulatory alignment with the EU.
Both sides hope to strike a deal on Brexit withdrawal terms and agree a plan for future trade ties in time for an EU summit in October, ahead of Britain’s departure from the bloc on March 29, 2019.
Europe’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said Tuesday talks will resume next Monday as scheduled with the new Brexit minister, while refusing to comment on the political infighting consuming London.
“I had with David Davis a frank and cordial relationship, and now I will work next Monday with this negotiator appointed by Mrs May,” he told AFP.
Pressure had been growing for months on the prime minister to reach a compromise on Brexit within her publicly divided cabinet in order to progress talks with the EU.