Boris Johnson, U.K. foreign minister, resigns amid cabinet rift over Brexit
Solicitor general says he thinks the idea of a leadership challenge is 'out the window'
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resigned Monday, adding to divisions over Brexit that threaten to tear apart Prime Minister Theresa May's government.
Johnson, one of the best known and most flamboyant members of the government, quit just hours after the resignation late Sunday of Brexit Secretary David Davis, the government's top Brexit official.
May's office said in a terse statement that the prime minister had accepted Johnson's resignation and would name a replacement soon. Later in the day, it was announced that Jeremy Hunt, who had been serving as health secretary, will be the new foreign secretary. Davis was replaced by staunchly pro-Brexit lawmaker Dominic Raab.
Davis said he could not support May's plan to maintain close trade and regulatory ties with the European Union, which he said gave "too much away, too easily."
May defends plan
Minutes after Johnson quit, May defended her Brexit plan to lawmakers in the House of Commons — with Johnson absent from his usual place on the Conservative front bench.
What will happen next is far from clear, but Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis and other lawmakers, including prominent Euroskeptic Jacob Rees-Mogg, told reporters they did not expect a confidence motion to be brought against May after she met the parliamentary party in a bid to get their support for her plan.
"The question of a leadership challenge, I think it's out the window, gone," said Robert Buckland, solicitor general for England and Wales. "I think that meeting put to bed any idea of a leadership challenge and I think she's absolutely safe."
May's plan seeks to keep the U.K. and the EU in a free-trade zone for goods, and commits Britain to maintaining the same rules as the bloc for goods and agricultural products.
May said that was the "only way to avoid a hard border" between the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. Uncertainty over whether tariffs and immigration checks would be introduced at the border has been a major stumbling block in negotiations between Britain and the European Union.
'The right Brexit'
Rebuffing claims that her proposals make too many concessions to the EU, May said "this is the right Brexit" and would leave Britain free to make its own laws and trade deals.
May's cabinet agreed to the plan after a 12-hour meeting Friday, but government unity began to fray within hours.
Brexit-supporting lawmakers were angered by the proposals, saying they would keep Britain tethered to the bloc and unable to change its rules to strike new trade deals around the world. They also argued that the proposals breach several of the "red lines" the government set out, including a commitment to leave the EU's tariff-free customs union.
Less than nine months remain until Britain leaves the bloc on March 29, and the EU has warned Britain repeatedly that time is running out to seal a divorce deal.
Britain and the EU hope to reach broad agreement by October so that EU national parliaments can ratify a deal before Britain leaves. That timetable looks increasingly optimistic, but European Commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas said the EU was "available 24/7."
May said on Monday that Britain will not hold a referendum on the final deal to leave the EU or seek to delay the planned exit date.
Schinas said the bloc "will continue to negotiate in good will, bona fide, with Prime Minister Theresa May and the U.K. government negotiators in order to reach a deal."
Before Johnson quit, May's official spokesperson, James Slack, said Britain wanted to "move forward at pace" in the negotiations.
"There is now a new secretary of state and we look forward to moving on," he said.
Some Euroskeptic lawmakers dream of replacing May with a staunch Brexiteer, such as Johnson, who in the past has disagreed publicly with his boss.
Davis said he did not want his resignation to become a rallying cry for May's ouster.
"I like Theresa May, I think she's a good prime minister," Davis said.
Davis did not urge other ministers to resign, saying he was in a unique position because the Brexit secretary's job is to sell the government's policy.
"I'd have to deliver this. I'd have to do something I didn't believe in," he told the BBC. "That's not a tenable position. ... Others don't have that same responsibility."
Under Conservative Party rules, a confidence vote in a leader can be triggered if 48 Conservative lawmakers request one.
But leading pro-Brexit legislator Jacob Rees-Mogg said "I don't think a no-confidence vote is immediately in the offing." He urged May to abandon her plans and take a tougher line with Brussels.
"Friday's announcement was turning red lines into a white flag, and David Davis has made that so clear in his resignation letter," Rees-Mogg said.
With files from Reuters