Boris Johnson's resignation pushes PM May closer to the brink

Boris Johnson's resignation pushes PM May closer to the brink
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Over the past 40 years, four British Conservative prime ministers have tempted fate by addressing deep divisions within their own party over the U.K.’s relationship with the European Union, and some met their ultimate political demise: Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron.

Edward Heath was the first victim of this dire fate as he failed to return Conservatives to power in 1974, a year after the United Kingdom joined the European community on his watch.

Margaret Thatcher initially supported the 1975 referendum on the U.K.’s EU membership, but a string of firings and resignations of cabinet members (sound familiar?) who favored more integration against her wishes led to her downfall.


John Major, her successor, negotiated the 1992 Maastricht Treaty for the U.K. but almost failed to ratify it due to pressure from the Conservatives’ Eurosceptic wing.

David Cameron promised to hold a referendum on the U.K.’s future membership of the EU should he be re-elected in 2015. He supported staying in a reformed EU, lost, then resigned.  

Will Theresa May’s name be added to this distinguished list? 

Seven members of Theresa May’s government have resigned since November 2017 — an average of one every six weeks, and approximately one-third of her cabinet. She took a step closer to the brink over the past 48 hours with the help of Boris Johnson and a Brexit song he could not sing. 

Like her Conservative predecessors, Theresa May has had the impossible task of balancing the demands of those in her party who want a clean break from the EU and those who want a close relationship after Brexit.

Interrupted only by a near-death electoral experience when Conservatives lost their majority in parliament in June 2017, May’s tenure has been a never-ending party feud marked by frequent and intemperate public statements from several cabinet ministers, especially her now-former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. 


But for a brief time, it appeared that Theresa May had finally silenced the bickering and stopped the backstabbing over Brexit on July 6 following a day-long cabinet meeting at her country residence, Chequers.

The entire 29-member cabinet, including Brexiteers Boris Johnson and David Davis, secretary of State for Exiting the EU, agreed to Theresa May’s newest plan to prevent a hard border with Ireland and keep the flow of goods and agricultural products undisrupted…until 48 hours later when they didn’t. 

Two Brexit disruptors, two very different resignations. David Davis resigned as chief Brexit negotiator because he could no longer faithfully represent the government’s position on Brexit.

One wonders why he did not resign on July 6, but perhaps he needed time to reflect, or he wanted to disturb Theresa May’s government the night before she was to present her unified cabinet’s Brexit plan to parliament.

Still, he laid out his principled rationale as the lead cabinet officer in charge of selling a plan in which he did not believe.  

The next resignation came the following day from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who informed the prime minister’s office that he would be resigning before officially sending his extremely sharp resignation letter, in which he feared the U.K.’s new Brexit plan or “the government’s song to sing,” would leave the country an EU colony and would represent the death of the “Brexit dream.” Theresa May’s song, unfortunately, stuck in his throat. 

The Johnson resignation was unnecessary — even Davis commented that Brexit was not essential to Johnson’s portfolio — but he was likely more interested in jumping on the Brexit resignation bandwagon to see if there was a political opportunity to seize the premiership he has coveted for so long.

Is this the end to the cabinet resignations?

Political observers sense that the Conservative party is attempting to catch its breath and steady itself, but party knives are sharpening, and potential leaders are circling to challenge May, whom she says she will face head-on, but there are no obvious choices to succeed her.

Each future Conservative leader must be able to perform their own party balancing act, and the few ambitious enough to seek the opportunity are unable to do so.

For now, hardline Brexiteers are regrouping; many supported Johnson’s resignation, calling it “principled” and honorable. Others have voiced their support for May’s premiership and against a future Labour prime minister. 

Political observers believe that things have stabilized — for the moment. In addition to the prime minister’s office, the three most critical cabinet positions — Treasury, the Foreign Office and the Home Office — are safely in the hands of those who voted to remain in the EU.

But recent polling figures should provide the Conservatives little comfort: Only 29 percent of Britons polled approve of the government’s handling of Brexit. 

Will Boris Johnson sing a new tune now that he is just another unhappy Conservative MP over Brexit? He may have a unique opportunity to try out a new sound when President TrumpDonald TrumpIran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries Pardon-seekers have paid Trump allies tens of thousands to lobby president: NYT MORE visits London this week.

Noting that the U.K. is in political turmoil before departing for Europe, President Trump failed to offer a word of encouragement in support of Theresa May, observing that her future was “up to the people.”

May’s future is up to the Conservative Party, and President Trump is particularly enthused about one of its members, Boris Johnson, stating that he “is a friend of mine. He’s been very, very supportive and very nice to me. Maybe I’ll speak to him when I get over there.”

Johnson may be warming up his vocal chords to sing a new Brexit song that does not stick in his throat. 

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C., and a former deputy assistant secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs in the George W. Bush administration. These views are her own.