LONDON - Prime Minister Theresa May struggled Monday to keep her government from imploding after the resignations of Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, a prominent face of the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, and David Davis, her once loyal "Brexit minister" in charge of negotiating the country’s break.
The surprise departures exposed May to challenge by restive Conservative party members outraged over what they see as the prime minister’s plan for a "soft Brexit" that keeps Britain tied to many EU rules and regulations after it leaves the bloc next year.
Hard-line Brexit backers - who want May to seek a clean, decisive break from Brussels - were in open revolt over her recently revealed proposals. They denounced the latest road map as a timid capitulation: "Brexit in name only" that ignores the 52 percent of voters who opted in June 2016 to leave the European bloc.
May replaced Davis on Monday morning with 44-year-old Dominic Raab, a leading pro-Brexit campaigner during the EU referendum who served as her housing minister.
Where May’s Brexit plans go now is an open question.
The European reaction was muted on Monday morning.
"Politicians come and go, but the problems they have created for their people remain," European Council President Donald Tusk said Monday of Davis’s exit, just before being informed of Johnson’s resignation. He said the same sentiment extended to Johnson as well.
The pound sterling held steady and markets did not drop. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump is scheduled to arrive Thursday for a visit that will be closely watched for any comments on Brexit and U.S. relations with the EU.
In his letter of resignation late Sunday, Davis told May that her tactics and proposals make it "look less and less likely" that Britain would leave Europe’s single market and customs unions - two promises May has made.
Davis warned May her approach will just lead to further demands from Brussels and will give Europe control of large swaths of the British economy.
Speaking to the BBC on Monday, Davis said he had to resign because as Brexit secretary he did not support May’s strategy and so could not do his job.
Critics of Brexit found such admissions astounding and evidence of chaos and lack of leadership - two years after the referendum and eight months before Britain leaves the union.
One of the leading campaigners for leaving the European Union, the radio show personality and European parliamentarian Nigel Farage, said: "For Brexit to succeed we must get rid of this awful, duplicitous PM."
In another sign of widespread confusion, Steve Baker, who resigned as David Davis’s deputy at the Brexit ministry, charged on Monday that they had been "blindsided" by May’s new proposals.
Davis said of May’s approach: "It seems to me we are giving too much away too easily."
The outgoing minister suggested that May’s promise that Britain and its parliament would "take back control" from Brussels was hollow. "This is painted as returning power back to the House of Commons," Davis said. "In practice, it is not doing so."
For two years, chief negotiator Davis has been the white-haired, ruddy-cheeked face of Brexit. But talks in Brussels were notoriously slow, mostly because May’s government could not - and still cannot - agree on what kind of future relationship Britain wants with Europe on trade, immigration, law, tariffs and border checks and security.
Recently it was revealed that Davis had only attended four hours of talks in Brussels in 2018, going as long as three months without meeting the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
David Lammy, a prominent member of the opposition Labour party, derided Davis as "a man who can’t take responsibility. For two years he’s been in charge of Brexit. No one in the world is as much to blame for this monumental mess as himself."
The prime minister’s plan for a soft Brexit was pushed forward by May at a crunch cabinet meeting at her countryside manor, called Chequers, on Friday.
In that meeting, May had appeared to win over her fractious cabinet and secure approval for her plan, which was to be published as soon as this week in a lengthy White Paper that would stake out Britain’s vision for future relations with Europe.
While May’s plan for exiting the European Union has not be fully revealed to all members of her party - let alone to parliament, the business community or the public - the brief outline that was released shows she supports a middle way of compromise with Brussels, keeping Britain closely aligned with Europe on standards, "a common rule book for industrial goods and agricultural products."
This, her critic charged, would shackle Britain and make it "a rule taker versus a rulemaker."
May was scheduled to address all Tory parliamentarians at a meeting later Monday.
Reaction came thick and fast on Monday. Some Brexit backers cheered Davis on.
"Fantastic news," tweeted Andrea Jenkyns, a Conservative lawmaker. "Well done David Davis for having the principal and guts to resign. I take my hat off to you. We need to make sure this is now a game changer for #Brexit."
Remarkably, Jenkyns openly called for May’s ouster and for Boris Johnson to take over.
Opposition lawmakers said that this was a big blow for the prime minister.
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, tweeted that the resignation "at such a crucial time" showed that May "has no authority left and is incapable of delivering Brexit."
"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," Corbyn said.