Theresa May will meet with her reshuffled cabinet on Tuesday morning after she warned hardline Brexiters to fall into line or risk handing power to Jeremy Corbyn. It follows Boris Johnson’s departure on Monday when he became the second cabinet minister to resign in 24 hours, claiming Britain was “headed for the status of colony”.
After a dramatic day of twists and turns in Westminster, the prime minister addressed Conservative MPs for an hour on Monday, issuing a stark warning that divided parties lose elections and telling her party that “to lead is to decide”.
She then returned to Downing Street to fill the gaps left on the government benches by several resignations, sparked by the Brexit secretary, David Davis, who stepped down late on Sunday night.
“If we don’t pull together, we risk the election of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister,” one cabinet minister said, summarising what was said at the meeting. “At least half a dozen people made that point and the prime minister responded, too – what is good for the country is a Conservative government.”
Earlier, Downing Street announced Johnson’s resignation as foreign secretary, just minutes before May addressed MPs about the softer Brexit plan agreed at Chequers on Friday.
Johnson had been due to host a summit about the western Balkans on Monday afternoon but was instead holed up in his official residence with close advisers, considering his position.
In a strongly worded resignation letter, he warned that the current Brexit plan meant Britain was “truly headed for the status of colony” and accused the prime minister of “sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above them”.
On Monday evening, Johnson was replaced as foreign secretary by Jeremy Hunt, who in turn was replaced as health secretary by Matt Hancock, as the prime minister embarked on a reshuffle to shore up her position.
Both men have proven their loyalty to May in recent months. Hunt recently won a significant increase in resources for the NHS after a standoff with the chancellor, Philip Hammond, and is widely regarded as a potential future leadership candidate.
As the flamboyant public face of the Vote Leave campaign, Johnson’s departure deepened the sense of crisis in Downing Street, and increased the chances that May could face a vote of no confidence in the coming days.
If 48 Conservative MPs write letters of no confidence to the chair of the backbench 1922 committee, Graham Brady, she would face an immediate vote, but he made clear on Monday night that point had not been reached.
Many of the prime minister’s supporters believe she would win a contest and cement her authority; but May would face a leadership challenge if she lost, with Johnson among the potential candidates.
Asked whether May would contest a no confidence vote, a Downing Street source said simply: “Yes.”
Asked whether May was confident that the rest of her cabinet backed the negotiating position agreed at Chequers, which is due to be fleshed out in a white paper later this week, he added: “There is no reason to think otherwise.”
The carefully choreographed meeting last week resulted in a deal May believed her cabinet had signed up to, which would create a “UK-EU free trade area” for goods, governed by a “common rule book”.
But Davis’s resignation, followed by his number two at the Department for Exiting the EU, Steve Baker, shattered that truce and put pressure on Johnson to follow suit.
In his resignation letter, Johnson said: “On Friday, I acknowledged that my side of the argument were too few to prevail, and congratulated you on at least reaching a cabinet decision on the way forward. As I said then, the government now has a song to sing. The trouble is that I have practised the words over the weekend and find that they stick in the throat.”
In her equally pointed reply, the prime minister said: “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.” She added that she was “sorry, and a little surprised” at his resignation after the discussions in Chequers.
May also referred to her recent pledge to spend more on the NHS – which she claimed would be partly funded by the “Brexit dividend”. Johnson was the cabinet minister most closely associated with Vote Leave’s controversial claim that Brexit would deliver an extra £350m a week for the NHS.
Davis was replaced as Brexit secretary by fellow leaver Dominic Raab. Baker was replaced by Chris Heaton-Harris, another Brexiter, who sparked controversy last year after asking universities to supply details of their teaching on the EU.
Brussels has not yet made clear how the EU27 will respond to the Chequers deal, which the government believes represents an “evolution” of its negotiating strategy.
A senior Brussels source insisted they were unruffled by Davis’s resignation, dismissing it as “UK politics”. “Let’s see how it goes. We negotiate with the negotiators,” he said.
Davis’s dissatisfaction had increased in recent months because of the prominent role played by May’s chief negotiator, the senior civil servant Ollie Robbins, in the talks.
The European council’s chair, Donald 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?”
The government’s offer to follow the EU’s “common rule book” of standards for food and goods, which was last updated in 1997, is intended to allow the UK to diverge on the regulation of standards in digital and for other services.
Ministers insist that the UK will not accept free movement after Brexit and that there would be no preferential treatment for EU citizens coming to the UK.
Friends of Davis insisted there had been no coordination between him and Johnson, but the former Brexit secretary had inadvertently made a “forcing play” – a move in chess that gives the other little choice but to make an unpalatable move themselves.
“Boris having flunked one resignation already, if he’d flunked another one he would have been seen as cowardly,” the friend said. After the Chequers summit, it emerged that Johnson had referred to attempts to sell May’s Brexit plan as being akin to “polishing a turd”.
One senior Brexiter suggested more resignations could follow in the coming weeks and months. “They’ll keep going, one by one, until she either junks Chequers or goes.”
Another leaver, Bolton MP Chris Green, resigned from a junior government post as PPS to Department of Transport after the 1922 meeting, saying he had been unconvinced. Conor Burns MP, Johnson’s former parliamentary private secretary, also stepped down.
However, others said there was a show of support for May at the 1922 meeting, with some MPs present banging walls and tables.
Robert Buckland, the solicitor general, said the question of a leadership challenge was “out of the window” and said the reception at the 1922 Committee had exceeded expectations. “If you’d told me two hours ago that this is how we’d end the day, I’d have bitten your hand off.”
As Johnson’s resignation was announced, Labour MPs were being briefed about the government’s soft Brexit plan by May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, in a sign that Downing Street is beginning to accept that it will need to draw on cross-party support to get her plans through parliament, without the backing of hardline Brexiters.
The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, writing in the Guardian, urged the prime minister to let parliament agree the next steps.
“Theresa May has successfully kicked the can down the road on a number of occasions, but now she has run out of road. It is now time for the majority in parliament to be heard. It’s a majority that rejects the extreme approach to Brexit advocated by some in the Tory party,” he said.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tory MPs, said it was of “grave concern,” that the government had briefed Labour. “If they plan to get this deal through on the back of Labour votes, that would be the most divisive thing that they can do.”