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.
The resignation followed hours of speculation over Mr Johnson’s future following the departure late on Sunday of David Davis, the minister charged with Britain’s negotiations with Brussels.
Mr Johnson had been one of the most outspoken critics of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit strategy within the ruling Conservative party. His departure followed a stormy meeting on Friday at the premier’s countryside residence, Chequers, when she outlined a new strategy in the run-up to the March 2019 departure date.
The plan angered many on the Eurosceptic wing of the ruling party who had wanted a cleaner break from the European Union, and triggered Mr Davis’s departure after 48 hours of considering his position.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “This afternoon, the Prime Minister accepted the resignation of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. His replacement will be announced shortly. The Prime Minister thanks Boris for his work.”
The announcement came after a day of procrastination by Mr Johnson, who was supposed to attend the West Balkans summit but cancelled government cars three times.
His 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.
Mr Johnson’s opposition to prime minister Theresa May’s plan on leaving the European Union was well-known and had reportedly described the latest Brexit strategy as a “turd”.
His public pronouncements and writings had sparked irritation in 10 Downing Street but Mrs May’s wafer-thin parliamentary majority had made it difficult for her to sack him.
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 loss of two senior ministers in one day raises the prospects of a leadership challenge against Mrs May at a crucial time of negotiations with the European Union. If the process is triggered, Mr Johnson is seen as one of the most likely potential challengers.
He had been the figurehead of the Leave campaign for the 2016 referendum, but dramatically pulled away from an expected run after losing the support of his fellow minister Michael Gove. Mr Gove was being strongly tipped on Monday to take Mr Johnson’s place as foreign secretary.
The turmoil in the upper echelons of the government comes just months before negotiations are due to conclude in October before the UK leaves the world’s largest trading bloc at the end of March 2019.
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.
They have been opposed by opposing factions within the party who wanted to keep closer trading links with the remaining 27 nations of the EU even if that meant abiding by some of the bloc’s rules.
Mr Davis claimed Monday that the government was giving away too much, too easily in a stinging broadside just hours after announcing his own resignation. His job will be taken by Dominic Raab, a Eurosceptic minister.
Mr Davis said he had decided to quit his job because he did not believe in the “dangerous” strategy thrashed out at the stormy government meeting last week and believed that he was no longer the best person to lead negotiations.
Mr Davis said that his departure was not a prelude to him challenging the prime minister’s position. Mr Davis’s deputy, Steve Baker, also quit.
The decision by Mr Davis swiftly 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. Mr Johnson’s resignation sent the pound tumbling, down 0.1% against both the dollar and euro in afternoon trade.
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?”