LONDON — A political crisis threatening Prime Minister Theresa May's government deepened Monday after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resigned hours after Britain's top negotiator for the country’s exit from the European Union unexpectedly quit.
Both resignations came after May unveiled proposals for Britain's Brexit strategy, adding pressure for May to step down. She could also be ousted in a leadership challenge by her ruling Conservative Party.
The well-known, flamboyant Johnson and senior negotiator David Davis were leading figures in the 2016 referendum campaign in favor of Brexit, and both heavily favor a strong break — a "hard Brexit" — in trade ties with the EU.
May later named Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary and one of her most loyal ministers, to replace Johnson as foreign secretary.
The changes come as May plans to meet with world leaders at the NATO summit Wednesday and Thursday, followed by meeting with President Donald Trump at the end of the week in and around London.
The White House said Trump’s visit to London remains scheduled for Thursday and Friday despite the political turmoil. “The president continues to look forward to his working visit with the prime minister on July 13, and further strengthening the U.S.-U.K. special relationship,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
Johnson, in his resignation letter, accused May of flying “white flags” of surrender in negotiations with the EU. He said May’s plan to keep close economic ties with the 28-nation bloc means the U.K. would have the “status of colony” within the EU.
“The Brexit dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt," he said.
Shortly after Johnson quit, May defended her Brexit plan, telling lawmakers in the House of Commons it was the "only way to avoid a hard border" between the United Kingdom's Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. Uncertainty over tariffs and immigration checks at the border has been a major stumbling block in negotiations between Britain and the EU.
Johnson's resignation came after he reportedly described May's plans for a "soft Brexit" to preserve trade with the EU to "polishing a turd."
"Luckily, we have some expert turd-polishers in this government," Johnson told May last week at a Brexit summit at Chequers, her country retreat, British media reported.
Davis resigned Sunday after claiming that May is undermining Brexit with her proposals for a "soft Brexit."
In his resignation letter, Davis cited irreconcilable differences with May over her plan to keep trade and customs similar to existing ones with the EU that "will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one."
Dominic Raab, a Brexit supporter who was previously the housing minister, was named as Davis' replacement.
The moves by Johnson and Davis destabilize May's already fragile coalition government just days after the British leader announced she had finally united her fractious Cabinet behind a plan for a divorce deal with the EU.
Brexit is due to take place by March 2019. The EU has not signed off on any of May's latest proposals. In fact, the EU has repeatedly warned Britain that time is running out to seal a divorce deal.
"The mess caused by Brexit is the biggest problem in the history of EU-U.K. relations and it is still very far from being resolved, with or without Mr. Davis," European Council President Donald Tusk said Monday.
The resignations are a major blow to May because she was been trying to win over members of Parliament who are skeptical of her proposal that would keep Britain in a free-trade zone with the EU and avoid tariffs and border checks for goods. Davis was a strong voice who favored a clean break so Britain could strike new trade deals around the world.
May "has no authority left and is incapable of delivering Brexit," tweeted Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party. "With her government in chaos, if she clings on, it's clear she's more interested in hanging on for her own sake than serving the people of our country."
Britain needs to reach a Brexit deal with the EU before March 29, 2019, in order to establish trade, security, immigration and other ties with the bloc. If Britain fails to secure an agreement in time, tariffs would be imposed on U.K. goods exported to the EU, and vice versa, under World Trade Organization rules.
In theory, Britain would also have no legal obligation to contribute to the EU's budget, according to a parliamentary report. More worrisome are the residency and working rights of 3 million EU nationals in Britain that could suddenly end.
Contributing: Gregory Korte in Washington