Political chaos in the wake of shock resignations from Theresa May’s Cabinet is threatening to stall crucial negotiations over Brexit.
The British prime minister could face a leadership heave after leading Brexiteers Boris Johnson and David Davis both quit over her new soft Brexit plan.
Tory backbenchers last night gathered amid suggestions there are 48 willing to sign and force a no confidence vote — the number needed for such a challenge.
Any Tory leadership heave could take weeks to play out, threatening attempts to meet an October deadline for the EU-UK Brexit negotiations. Nonetheless, the Government here welcomed a commitment from Ms May yesterday to publish her white paper on Britain’s future relations with the EU this Thursday.
Brexit plans are in disarray just days after Ms May oversaw cabinet talks in Chequers where she unveiled her strategy. This includes plans for a combined customs union area and partial single market. However, after 24 hours of chaos in British politics and several resignations, the strategy is under threat.
Brexit secretary David Davis quit late on Sunday night, declaring he could not be a “reluctant conscript”.
He said Ms May’s plans would make supposed control by the British parliament “illusory rather than real”. Junior Brexit minister Steve Baker also quit.
Downing Street moved quickly to replace Mr Davis yesterday and announced that Tory MP Dominic Raab would fill the vacancy.
However, the crisis escalated yesterday afternoon when foreign secretary Boris Johnson walked from cabinet too. Last night, Jeremy Hunt was named as his replacement
Mr Johnson was the figurehead of the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, but dramatically pulled away from an expected leadership bid.
His resignation letter released later said the Brexit “dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt”.
He also suggested under EU rules Britain was “headed for the status of colony”. The Tory MP said Britain was “heading for a semi-Brexit”.
Facing rowdy scenes in the House of Commons yesterday, Ms May noted the disagreements with her strategy, but defended it and committed to still publishing a paper this Thursday.
This was welcomed by Tánaiste Simon Coveney. His spokesman added: “The Irish Government remains consistent that what is needed now is fulsome negotiations between the EU and the UK to achieve the best possible deal by October.”
Both Mr Coveney and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar refused to discuss the Tory resignations, saying this was a matter for Theresa May.
Speaking in Cork, Mr Coveney warned time was running out.
“There really is only about eight weeks of negotiations left and so from what I’ve said and from what the Taoiseach said, the repositioning of the United Kingdom from the Chequers meeting on Friday is welcome and I don’t think we should be distracted now by some of the political challenges that are going on at Westminister.”
The “kick back”, as he called it, from Ms May’s revised position on exiting the EU was also not surprising.
In Brussels, EU officials tried to sound a note of optimism about the resignations.
European Council president Donald Tusk tweeted: “Politicians come and go but the problems they have created remain. I can only regret that the idea of Brexit has not left with Davis and Johnson. But...who knows?”
Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern said the EU should cut Ms May some slack after her softening stance on Brexit.
Amid mounting speculation of a Tory leadership challenge last night, Ms May’s aides said she would fight a vote of no confidence if one was tabled.
There was confusion as to whether the Tory infighting would in fact put back the publication of the white paper. Ms May, reports said, told a private meeting of Tory MPs that she would put off publishing her new Brexit strategy until next week.
Opposition figures here called on the Government to be prepared for any Brexit scenario.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said Ireland must not become collateral damage amid a Tory civil war.
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