May clings on amid exit turmoil

British PM meets with new-look cabinet after top ministers’ resignations over EU trade deal row

Theresa May. File picture
Theresa May. File picture
Image: AFP

British Prime Minister Theresa May chaired a meeting of her new-look cabinet on Tuesday as she clung to power following the resignation of her foreign and Brexit ministers in protest at her strategy for leaving the European Union.

May has faced a backlash over the plan from Brexit hardliners in her Conservative Party, who say it gives too many concessions to the EU, but she has support from moderates and there has been no challenge to her leadership.

Former foreign minister Boris Johnson, who wrote in his resignation letter that the Brexit “dream is dying” and that Britain was headed for the “status of colony” of the EU under May’s leadership, is seen as a potential challenger.

Johnson’s dramatic resignation on Monday just hours after Brexit minister David Davis quit late on Sunday plunged the value of the pound on currency markets.

Rumours swirled over possible further resignations but experts said May seemed to have weathered the crisis for now.

“My impression is that this is probably as far as it goes. I can’t see more ministers resigning,” Simon Usherwood, politics lecturer at the University of Surrey, said.

The gaffe-prone Johnson was quickly replaced by 51year-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 only days before negotiations in Brussels are due to resume next week.

Hunt said it was a moment to show 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 at Chequers”.

The plan agreed on at May’s country retreat would involve Britain pursuing a “UK-EU free trade area” for goods that would involve regulatory alignment with the EU.

British and EU officials are hoping to strike a deal on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal and agree to a plan for future trade ties in time for an EU summit in October.

“With just weeks to conclude negotiations on leaving the EU, this is a critical moment for the country.

“The confrontation between Brexiters and reality was long overdue,” the Financial Times said in an editorial, adding that May “should have faced down the hardliners before negotiations”. Times columnist Rachel Sylvester said May’s authority “is destroyed at the very moment she needs the credibility to assert herself in the negotiations with the EU”.

May’s Conservative opponents could trigger a confidence vote against her if at least 48 MPs support it, but to actually force her from office 159 MPs would have to vote against her – a figure hardliners may not be able to reach.

Much will depend on European reactions and May was due to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel later on Tuesday at the Western Balkans Summit in London.