Theresa May, U.K. primer minister (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

May Fights to Contain Brexit Crisis After Key Ministers Quit

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Prime Minister Theresa May battled to stave off a full-blown crisis after three ministers quit within 24 hours to protest her Brexit plan.

The resignation of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, the face of the campaign to leave the European Union in 2016, compounded the chaos in government following the departures of Brexit Secretary David Davis and his deputy late Sunday. May’s statement to Parliament on Brexit, which was meant to crown a rare compromise deal reached with her divided Cabinet on Friday, was turned into a two-hour defense of her policy of seeking a softer divorce from the EU.

But the immediate danger appeared to have receded as pro-Brexit lawmakers held back from calling May to go, emphasizing instead the need for a new policy. Graham Brady, head of the Conservative Party committee that handles the procedures for leadership challenges, also indicated he hadn’t received enough signatures to trigger a confidence vote in the prime minister.

“If the threshold were to be reached, at some point it would be incumbent on me to make arrangements for a vote of confidence,” Brady told Bloomberg. “People would know fairly quickly.”

May maintained the balance of Leavers and Remainers in her Cabinet by appointing Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to replace Johnson as foreign secretary, after earlier picking Brexiter Dominic Raab to replace Davis. Hunt campaigned to stay in the EU but has since changed his mind and says he would back ‘Leave’ if the referendum were held now.

Challenge

In the House of Commons, May twice batted away the question of whether she would fight a leadership challenge, and denied her Brexit proposal -- which she said would protect the economy -- was a betrayal of the referendum result.

“Nice try, but I’m getting on with delivering what the British people want,” she said. Minutes later, she was asked if she expected more resignations. “There is only one interest in jobs that this government has, and that’s the jobs of the people of this country and ensuring prosperity,” she said.

High-profile resignations can unleash leadership challenges, and the fact that Johnson -- or those around him -- made sure his resignation statement came out in time for the evening news and before it was issued in the traditional way by May’s office, hints at his continued interest in becoming prime minister.

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Johnson’s resignation letter amounted to a savage attack on May’s record, accusing her government of postponing “crucial decisions” and not doing enough to prepare for a potential “no-deal” departure from the EU.

‘Self-Doubt’

“The dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt,” Johnson wrote. “It is as though we are sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above them.”

May responded in kind, saying that she was “surprised” that he had reneged on the Cabinet agreement.

“If you are not able to provide the support we need to secure this deal in the interests of the United Kingdom, it is right that you should step down,” May wrote in her reply. “The agreement we reached requires the full, collective support of Her Majesty’s government.”

Straight after her Commons appearance, May went to a packed meeting of rank-and-file Tory lawmakers, where she spoke and took questions for an hour about her plan. There were some voices of dissent during the gathering, one lawmaker said as he left the room, though the end was marked by loud cheers.

Clear Conscience

Geoffrey Cox, who campaigned to leave the EU, said he can offer May’s proposals to voters with a clear conscience. “This deal does represent a giant step out of the EU,” he said after the meeting. “If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t support it.”

But Jacob-Rees Mogg, chairman of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, warned that May would split her party if she relies on opposition Labour votes to get her plan through Parliament. The premier’s team briefed Labour Party lawmakers on Monday in an apparent effort to try to count on their support if her own side lets her down.

“That would be the most divisive thing the government could do and it would be a split coming from the top,” Rees-Mogg told reporters outside the meeting. May’s statement in the Commons “gave me no reassurance at all,” he added.

Rees-Mogg’s group met later Monday to decide on their strategy.

Just on Friday, May announced she had secured the backing of her whole Cabinet for her Brexit proposal and told ministers to either back it or resign. It was a rare consensus, following talks at her Chequers country retreat about the way forward -- a move meant to kick-start talks with the EU that have been stalled for months.

Ministers signed off on a blueprint for a new U.K.-EU “free trade area,” with interwoven customs regimes, and identical regulations for industrial and agri-food goods. Critics in May’s Conservative Party said the plan would bind Britain to EU rules and prevent it from signing trade deals with countries outside the bloc.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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