LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May named Jeremy Hunt to the job of foreign secretary, after the resignation of Boris Johnson on Monday.
Hunt, who had been the health secretary, is considered one of May’s most loyal ministers.
May’s government was rocked Monday by the resignations of Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis. They quit amid divisions in the government over Brexit.
Johnson and Davis advocate a clean break with the European Union, known as “hard Brexit.” Hunt, who backed the “remain” side in Britain’s 2016 EU membership referendum, favors keeping close economic ties to the bloc, after the UK leaves next year.
Johnson quit with a resignation letter accusing May of flying “white flags” of surrender in negotiations with the European Union. He said “the Brexit dream is dying, suffocated by needless self doubt.”
May met with Conservative lawmakers in a packed room at Parliament, in a bid to calm the feverish atmosphere in the deeply divided party.
Under Conservative Party rules, a confidence vote in a leader can be triggered if 48 Conservative lawmakers write a letter requesting one. But leading pro-Brexit lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg said he did not think she would face a leadership challenge.
“My concern is about the policy, rather than the individual,” he said.
With Britain due to leave the 28-nation bloc on March 29, 2019, EU officials have warned Britain repeatedly that time is running out to seal a deal spelling out the terms of the divorce and a post-split relationship.
Two years after Britain voted 52 percent to 48% to leave the European Union, May is trying to find a middle way between two starkly differing views —within her party and the country — of the UK’s relationship with Europe. Pro-Europeans want to retain close economic ties with the bloc and its market of 500 million people, while some, but not all, Brexit supporters want a clean break to make it possible to strike new trade deals around the world.
The resignations came just days after May announced Friday that she had finally united her quarrelsome government behind a plan for a divorce deal with the EU.
Government unity began to fray within hours. Brexit-supporting lawmakers were angered by the proposals, saying they would keep Britain tethered to the bloc and unable to change its rules to strike new trade deals around the world. They also argued that the proposals breach several of the “red lines” that the government had set out, including a commitment to leave the EU’s tariff-free customs union.
In his resignation letter, Davis said the “‘common rule book policy 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 said in his letter that May’s plan to keep close economic ties with the bloc means Britain is heading for a “semi Brexit” that would leave Britain with the “status of a colony” of the EU.
May defended her Brexit plan to lawmakers in the House of Commons on Monday, with Johnson absent from his usual place on the Conservative front bench.