Boris Johnson resigns as foreign secretary over May's Brexit plans

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Senior Conservative becomes third minister to walk out over ‘common rule book’ proposal

Boris Johnson at the gates of Downing Street.

Boris Johnson at the gates of Downing Street.
Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Boris Johnson has resigned as foreign secretary, becoming the third minister in 24 hours to walk out of the government rather than back Theresa May’s plans for a soft Brexit.

The prime minister hammered out a compromise with her deeply divided cabinet in an all-day meeting at Chequers on Friday but after consulting friends and allies Johnson decided he could not promote the deal.

Pressure on the foreign secretary had been mounting since fellow pro-Brexiter David Davis resigned as Brexit secretary on Sunday night, swiftly followed by his No 2 at the Department for Exiting the EU, Steve Baker.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “This afternoon, the prime minister accepted the resignation of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. His replacement will be announced shortly. The prime minister thanks Boris for his work.”

Friends said Johnson had been finalising his resignation letter, but Downing Street announced his departure before he had completed it.

After the Chequers summit, it emerged that Johnson had referred to attempts to sell the prime minister’s Brexit plan as being akin to “polishing a turd”.

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As the flamboyant public face of the Vote Leave campaign, his departure will deepen the sense of crisis around May, and increase the chances that she could face a vote of no confidence.

One senior Brexiter suggested more resignations could follow if May sticks to her plan for a “common rule book” with Brussels: “They’ll keep going, one by one, until she either junks Chequers or goes.”

Johnson’s resignation was announced on Monday afternoon as Labour MPs were being briefed about the government’s soft Brexit plan by May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington.


Boris Johnson timeline

February 2016

Johnson says in a long-awaited statement that ‘after a huge amount of heartache’ he will​ back the leave campaign. In January, David Cameron had announced ministers could campaign on either side, and despite being a backbencher, Johnson’s view was seen as influential.

May 2016

Johnson campaigns around the UK, posing with the now infamous bus saying leaving the EU would provide the NHS with an extra £350m a week – a claim later condemned as a misuse of statistics.

23 June 2016

UK voters take part in the referendum. In the early hours of the following day the results show 52% voted to leave the EU. At a victory press conference hours later Johnson looks shaken.

30 June 2016

After Cameron quits, Johnson announces he will contest the Conservative leadership, pitching himself as a unifier. In a surprise twist, Michael Gove says he will also stand, warning that Johnson cannot provide the leadership needed. This prompts Johnson to use the launch of his leadership bid to say he will no longer stand.

13 July 2016

Theresa May, who took over the leadership unopposed, appoints Johnson as foreign secretary.

November 2017

Labour MPs call for Johnson to step down after he wrongly states that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was jailed in Iran, was ‘teaching people journalism’ – something both her family and her employer said was untrue, and was used by Iranian officials to justify her detention.

6 July 2018

Johnson is among 29 ministers who discuss May’s plan for Brexit at Chequers. He agrees to her proposals, though it is later reported he had initial doubts.

9 July 2018

After vanishing for several hours, Johnson resigns

Lidington, a potential candidate to succeed Johnson, emerged from the meeting in Westminster apparently unaware of the latest resignation news.

Johnson was 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.

He was ridiculed last month after avoiding a vote on a third runway at Heathrow, a proposal to which he had long-held objections. The trade minister Greg Hands resigned rather than obey the Conservative whip and vote for the airport’s expansion.

Tory resignations graphic

May appeared before a packed house of Commons, cheered loudly by Tory MPs as she arrived in the chamber minutes after news of Johnson’s resignation had emerged. The prime minister acknowledged the resignations of Davis and Johnson at the beginning of her statement on Friday’s Chequers agreement, briefly thanking Davis for steering through the “most important legislation for generations” and Johnson for showing passion in promoting “global Britain to the world”.

The prime minister did not elaborate on the turmoil engulfing her government in detail, saying only that “robust views had been exchanged around the cabinet table, as they have been around the breakfast table”. She added that she now expected cabinet members to conform to collective responsibility now that a soft Brexit policy had been agreed at Chequers.

Other ministers supporting hard Brexit took up their places on the frontbench, including Andrea Leadsom, Liam Fox and Penny Mourdant. Michael Gove arrived late, unable to get a seat on the frontbench initially, before taking a seat on the benches reserved for cabinet members after Corbyn’s speech. But there was no sign of either Johnson or Davis in the chamber.

Speaking after May, Corbyn said there was a crisis in the government, accusing her of presiding over “two years of soundbites, indecision and cabinet infighting” adding that “more and more people [are] losing faith that this government is capable of delivering a good Brexit deal and that is just within her own cabinet.”

Brussels reacted coolly to the news of Johnson’s and Davis’s departures. Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, said their resignations did nothing to “solve the mess caused by Brexit”.

He added in a tweet: “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,” he wrote, reprising his previously-stated hope that the UK might change its mind on leaving the EU.

Another EU diplomat said: “The question is can [May] pull it through. The stability of the government is called in question and now we will see what happens. But even if the government were to fall… we have no other option to deal with this or the next government.”

May is due to address her backbench MPs in Westminster after her Commons statement.

If 48 MPs write letters of no confidence to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, May will face a vote of no confidence.

Many of the prime minister’s supporters believe she would win such a contest and cement her authority, but if she lost, May would face a leadership challenge, with Johnson among the potential candidates.

Asked whether May would contest a no confidence vote, a Downing Street source said simply: “Yes”. He added that the prime minister believed she had secured the backing of the cabinet at Chequers on Friday.

“The Chequers agreement was the product and the subject of a formal meeting of the cabinet, and assent was recorded as part of that, in the way that cabinets do record these decisions.” He refused to give further details. Asked whether May was confident that the rest of her cabinet backed the Chequers position, he added: “There is no reason to think otherwise.”

In Davis’s resignation letter, he said he believed May’s proposal for a UK-EU free trade area governed by a “common rule book”, “hands control of large swathes of our economy to the EU and is certainly not returning control of our laws in any real sense”.

Johnson and his allies are particularly concerned about the risk that Britain’s ability to strike trade deals with non-EU countries will be severely limited under the Chequers approach. Brexiters have also been angered by what Baker told the BBC was “childish” briefing from No 10 over the treatment of pro-Brexit ministers at Chequers.

Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, said: “Theresa May’s government is in meltdown. This is complete and utter chaos. The country is at a standstill with a divided and shambolic government. This prime minister can’t deliver Brexit and has zero authority left.”

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