UK prime minister seeks to stem Cabinet exodus over Brexit
LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Theresa May insisted Tuesday that her plan to retain close ties with the European Union “absolutely keeps faith” with voters’ decision to leave the bloc, as she tried to restore government unity after the resignations of two top ministers over Brexit.
May has spent the past few days fighting for her political life as first Brexit Secretary David Davis and then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson quit, saying May’s plans for future relations with the European Union did not live up to their idea of Brexit. On Tuesday, two more lawmakers followed them out the door.
Johnson sent an incendiary resignation letter on Monday accusing May of killing “the Brexit dream” and flying “white flags” of surrender in negotiations with the European Union.
May, who has tried to keep calm and carry on, replaced Johnson with a loyalist, former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and gave Davis’ job to Dominic Raab in a bid to shore up her authority.
She held a meeting of her new Cabinet on Tuesday before attending a Western Balkans summit in London with other European leaders.
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.
At a news conference on Tuesday, May maintained her plan “absolutely keeps faith with the vote of the British people,” ending free movement of people from the EU, taking Britain out of European court jurisdiction and saving the “vast sums of money” that Britain pays as a member.
“But we will do this in a way which will be a smooth and orderly Brexit, a Brexit that protects jobs, protects livelihoods and also meets our commitment to no hard border” between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, she said.
Many pro-Brexit lawmakers are furious at a plan they say will stop Britain forging an independent economic course. Two Conservative lawmakers, Maria Caulfield and Ben Bradley, quit as vice-chairs of the party on Tuesday over opposition to May’s proposals. Bradley called on May to “deliver Brexit in spirit as well as in name.”
But senior pro-Brexit Cabinet ministers said they supported May and would not resign. Asked if he was planning to quit, environment Secretary Michael Gove said “absolutely not.”
Conservative lawmaker Michael Fallon, an ally of May, dismissed Johnson’s “Brexit dream” rallying cry.
“Dreaming is good, probably for all of us, but we have to deal with the real world,” he said.
Under Conservative Party rules, a confidence vote in a leader can be triggered if 15 percent of Conservative lawmakers — currently 48 — write a letter requesting one.
Fallon warned Conservative rebels that a challenge to May’s leadership is “the last thing we need.”
Two years after Britain voted 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the European Union, May is trying to find a middle way between two starkly differing views — within her party and the country — of the U.K.’s relationship with Europe.
Pro-Europeans want to retain close economic ties with the bloc and its market of 500 million people, while some Brexit supporters want a clean break to make it possible to strike new trade deals around the world.
The British government is due to publish a detailed version of its plans on Thursday. The EU says it will respond once it has seen the details.
“It’s a good thing that we have proposals on the table,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the Balkans summit in London. She said the 27 other EU nations would “table a common response to those proposals.”
The resignations rocked May in a week that includes a NATO summit starting Wednesday and a U.K. visit by U.S. President Donald Trump beginning Thursday.
The trans-Atlantic relationship has had some awkward moments since Trump’s election. He has criticized May over her response to terrorism and approach to Brexit, and infuriated many in Britain when he retweeted a far-right group.
Asked Tuesday whether May should be replaced as prime minister, Trump said it was “up to the people, not up to me.”
“I get along with her very well, I have a very good relationship,” he said.
He was more enthusiastic about Johnson, calling him “a friend of mine.”
“He’s been very, very nice to me, very supportive. Maybe I’ll speak to him when I get over there,” Trump said.