24 hours of UK chaos capped by Boris Johnson's resignation

24 hours of UK chaos capped by Boris Johnson's resignation
© Getty Images

The resignation of Boris Johnson, Britain’s foreign minister, punctuates a remarkably chaotic 24 hours in which three ministers left the May government. It was a day of drama in which Johnson missed several meetings before it was announced by the prime minister’s office that he had stepped down.

His resignation letter comes in the aftermath of a cabinet meeting over the weekend, where the government sought to hammer out the details of their negotiating position.


This was Prime Minister May's effort to ensure cabinet unity when a more detailed white paper will be released Thursday spelling out the current British negotiating position regarding the withdrawal from the European Union on March 29, 2019.


Boris Johnson was unhappy with the overall direction of British policy as it was not the "Brexit" he had campaigned for two years ago. Teresa May responded with a robust statement in the House of Commons that the goal was to push toward a new relationship with the European Union.

Johnson denounced the agreement as not based on optimism, nor was it in the best long-term interest of Britain. For Johnson, Britain would be "headed for the status of a colony" in which we are sending "our vanguards into battle with white flags."

Although Johnson has been caught making a few harsh, often undiplomatic remarks during his tenure as Foreign secretary, he did not fulfill his referendum promises, nor did he provide a workable alternative plan or vision for Brexit in his resignation letter.

His resignation alters nothing. Reaction from Brussels to the turmoil in British politics was pointed. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, pointed out that "politicians come and go but the problems remain… ."

Teresa May will remain prime minister for the time being. She had finally sought to put her stamp on the negotiations by getting collective agreement on a compromise that the U.K. could present to Brussels. Her strategy looks different from her earlier speeches.

In January 2017, she advocated for a dramatic break with Europe, setting out significant "red lines" in her negotiating position. She was adamant that no deal was an option if the offer was a "bad deal."

After the unnecessary election in June 2017 in which she lost her significant majority, she has come up with a proposal that seems to assume a cross-party coalition for a soft Brexit by calculating that the ultra-staunch anti-Europeans in her party will be unable to wield the clout to derail her plans.  

In the latest go-around, May has outlined a commitment to maintain common rules on industrial and agricultural goods to avoid disruptions for global supply chains, along with regulatory cooperation across a range of policy areas.

She has proposed yet another customs arrangement to deal with checks and controls between the United Kingdom and the European Union, with a joint framework for legal disputes and arbitration that respects the autonomy of their respective legal jurisdictions.

May has faced unprecedented defiance from cabinet ministers during her tenure, so the agreement seemed to signal how far May’s position has evolved as the complexity of the negotiations have become increasingly apparent.

The resignations may make it harder for her to convince members of her party to back the agreement. U.S. Ambassador Woody Johnson also signaled concern about the "Chequers Compromise" (named after the prime minister’s country retreat) for the prospects of a future bilateral U.K. trade deal with the United States.

Britain should also bear in mind that the European Union is moving at a quickened pace in opening new trade negotiations during the same period in which Britain has been extracting itself from the European project.

With only a few months of real negotiating time ahead, May has swiftly chosen her new cabinet appointments. Dominic Raab is the new Department for Exiting the EU (DEXEU) secretary of State and Jeremy Hunt is the new Foreign secretary.

While May was seen as capitulating to those seeking a softer Brexit option, her hard-line opponents within the party could not muster enough support for a leadership challenge. On top of all of this, the EU is quite likely to reject her compromise.

Some progress has been made as the prime minister’s Europe advisor, Olly Robbins, has been carrying out direct negotiations with Brussels. To be sure, May is depending on some European goodwill, as the departure of Britain with no deal of any kind would be disruptive to other European states as well.

Setting out a plan, even at this late stage, is a step forward. May will need a marked softening of the EU position if she is to avoid a crisis at the next European Council meeting in October. She needs an agreement that she can bring back for a Parliamentary vote.

If the task ahead seems difficult, EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier has signaled that if May softened her approach, there is greater willingness to compromise. He stated that he expects “a construction conversation” on the British white paper that will be released on Thursday.

Speaking in New York yesterday, Barnier stated that agreement between the two sides is progressing. While he advocated a compromise on the Irish border, he held steadfast to the need to maintain the integrity of the single market.

As Britain was so instrumental in promoting a single market in which there was free movement of goods, capital, services and people, he concluded they would surely understand the importance of not undermining their own creation.  

Michelle Egan is a global fellow in the Global Europe Program at the Wilson Center and a professor and the Jean Monnet chair ad personam at the School of International Service at American University.