The battle over “Brexit” – Britain’s planned exit from the European Union – has become very messy indeed.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s government was plunged into disarray Monday with the resignation of her flamboyant foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who quit in protest of May’s plans for a so-called soft Brexit, which would maintain close trade ties with Europe.
Such a scenario, Johnson wrote in his resignation letter, could result in Britain being relegated to “the status of a colony” of the European Union.
The rebellion within her own Conservative Party illustrated May’s dire political weakness less than nine months before the split is to take effect in March.
Johnson’s departure came less than 24 hours after that of another key Cabinet member, David Davis, who was tasked with overseeing Brexit.
May says it is crucial to avoid a “hard” Brexit – a departure from the EU without a deal in place. Such a scenario could wreak havoc on Britain’s financial sector and the wider economy.
“This is the Brexit that is in our national interest,” she told a raucous session of Parliament shortly after Johnson’s departure was announced by Downing Street.
Johnson, the floppy-haired former mayor of London, helped spearhead the campaign that led to Britain’s narrow vote in June 2016 to break with the EU – a shock that has been likened to President Trump’s unexpected victory on the other side of the Atlantic, five months later.
May tried to face down parliamentary hecklers who said she was betraying the voting public. They jeered loudly when she spoke approvingly of the “spirited national debate” taking place.
She moved quickly to replace both the departing officials. Moving into Johnson’s spot is Jeremy Hunt, formerly the health secretary. Davis was supplanted by Dominic Raab, an ex-housing minister who was a leading Brexit proponent.
Under the prime minister’s plan, to which her Cabinet had agreed last week, Britain would keep close trade ties to the EU and remain subject to some of its regulatory mechanisms. That prospect set off a wave of anger from those who considered Brexit a ringing declaration of independence from the bureaucracy in Brussels.
British news reports speculated that the ambitious Johnson might be readying a challenge to May for the leadership of the party, potentially setting himself up to become prime minister.
May argued that her plan represented the only way to avoid the re-imposing of border formalities such as tariffs and immigration checks between Ireland, which is an EU member, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. The Irish border has been a big sticking point in Brexit negotiations with the EU.
Backers of Brexit say May’s plan would hobble Britain’s ability to make trade deals of its own, and leave it subject to the very EU regulations it sought to leave behind in the referendum vote more than two years ago.
Under the timetable, Britain is to formally leave the bloc on March 29, 2019. But the negotiations have bogged down again and again as the clock has been running down.
May’s party could stage a no-confidence vote if 48 Conservative lawmakers ask for one. That could become more likely if she loses the backing of more senior ministers.
Before leaving May’s government, Johnson had likened her Brexit proposal to excrement, using a more vulgar term.
But the prime minister may be playing hardball as well. Johnson was still crafting a resignation statement when May’s office went ahead and announced he was leaving.
The political blowup comes just three days before a visit by Trump, who is highly unpopular in Britain. The stately venues for his scheduled events are mainly out in the lush countryside, where demonstrators can be kept out of sight and earshot, but protesters are promising to turn out in force in London.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has been targeted for criticism by Trump on Twitter, gave his permission for the lofting, for a limited period of time, of a protest blimp that portrays the U.S. president as an angry, diaper-clad baby.