On Monday, Boris Johnson resigned as foreign secretary of the United Kingdom. There is some ambiguity about whether he actually quit or was forced to resign. Johnson’s leave-taking, whether voluntary or not, comes hours after David Davis quit as Brexit secretary. Both resignations indicate the deep crisis faced by Prime Minister Theresa May as she tries push through Brexit while straddling a Conservative Party with sizable factions wanting both a “hard Brexit” (a complete withdrawal from the European Union) and no Brexit at all.
May has tried to balance the contending forces in her party by pushing for “soft Brexit” which would see the UK formally leave the EU but stay within the customs union and common market. In pursuing soft Brexit, May took the bold step of appointing advocates of hard Brexit, including Davis and Johnson, to key roles. The thinking was that if they were inside the government, Davis and Johnson would have to sign on to soft Brexit and couldn’t agitate against it.
This gambit was always risky. Johnson, in particular, has shown no compunction about sabotaging the policies of the very government he was serving under. Amber Rudd, the home secretary, once described Johnson as “not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening.” He is a notoriously reckless adventurer, highly interested in becoming prime minister, and willing to adopt nationalist demagoguery in pursuit of that goal. In September 2017, Johnson published a 4,000-word article in The Daily Telegraph making the case for as absolute a Brexit as possible, a deliberate attempt to undercut May.
As Ian Birrell wrote in The Daily Mail, “This act of sabotage against fellow Ministers was jaw-dropping on so many levels—even for a politician for whom ambition is like a flesh-eating disease coursing through his body.” More recently, Johnson was widely reported comparing work on the prime minister’s Brexit plan to “polishing a turd.” The surprise is not the Johnson has left his post, but that he stayed on it for so long.