Theresa May has moved to shore up her position following the shock resignation of Boris Johnson with the appointment of Jeremy Hunt as the new Foreign Secretary.
Mr Johnson plunged the Government into crisis after he announced he was quitting with a scathing denunciation of her Brexit plans, saying they would leave the UK a “colony” of the European Union.
His dramatic departure was the second resignation of a Cabinet “big beast” in less than 24 hours, after Brexit Secretary David Davis walked out late on Sunday.
Mr Hunt moves to the Foreign Office from the Department of Health and Social Care after having secured a £20 billion-a-year funding increase for the NHS.
Mr Hunt was a Remain campaigner in the referendum – although he has since declared he is a convert to the cause of Brexit – and his appointment will be seen as a tilt in the balance at the top of the Cabinet.
He is replaced at Health and Social Care by Culture Secretary Matt Hancock, who will in turn be succeeded by Attorney General Jeremy Wright.
Earlier staunch Brexiteer Dominic Raab was named as Mr Davis’s replacement as Secretary of State for Leaving the EU.
Both Mr Johnson and Mr Davis had signed up on Friday to Mrs May’s blueprint for Brexit at an all-day summit at Chequers which the Prime Minister believed had secured Cabinet unity behind her proposals.
But her administration was thrown into disarray within 48 hours, as first Mr Davis and then Mr Johnson said that they could not commit themselves to promote the plans under the doctrine of collective responsibility.
In a scathing resignation letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Johnson said that, under her leadership, the UK was “heading for a semi-Brexit”, with the dream of an outward-looking global Britain “dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt”.
“On Friday, I acknowledged that my side of the argument were too few to prevail and congratulated you on at least reaching a Cabinet decision on the way forward.
“As I said then, the Government now has a song to sing.
“The trouble is that I have practised the words over the weekend and I find they stick in the throat.
“We must have collective responsibility.
“Since I cannot in all conscience champion these proposals, I have sadly concluded that I must go.”
In her reply Mrs May said she was sorry, and “a little surprised”, at his decision but that if he could not support the Government’s position, “it is right that you should step down”.
On a day of high drama at Westminster, Mr Johnson’s exit was announced by Downing Street moments before Mrs May faced the House of Commons to set out details of her proposals.
Mr Johnson left the foreign secretary’s official residence at Carlton Gardens, central London, late in the evening, accompanied by his wife Marina Wheeler, and without speaking to waiting reporters.
The Prime Minister was greeted by loud cheers from Tory MPs and shouts of “resign” from the opposition benches as she arrived to deliver a statement in which she said her proposals would deliver “a Brexit that is in our national interest… the right Brexit deal for Britain”.
Mrs May heard Eurosceptic Tory backbencher Peter Bone tell how activists in his Wellingborough constituency refused to campaign at the weekend because they felt “betrayed” by the Chequers accord.
But she insisted her deal fulfilled the promises of the Tory manifesto to deliver an independent Britain able to take back control of its laws, borders and money, declaring: “This is not a betrayal.”
Downing Street made clear the PM would fight any attempt to oust her by rebel MPs.
Some 48 Tory MPs – 15% of the party’s 316-strong representation in the Commons – must write to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, to trigger a no-confidence vote.
Sir Graham refused to say whether he had received any such letters.
Senior backbencher Bernard Jenkin said there had been a “massive haemorrhage of trust” in Mrs May.
Asked if Brexiteers needed to put the PM’s future to a vote of the Conservative Party, he replied “it may well come to that”.
However, prominent Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chairman of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic backbenchers, said he had not submitted a letter of no confidence and expected Mrs May to remain at least until the official date of Brexit in March 2019.
Mr Johnson, the figurehead of the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, was widely reported to have told the Chequers meeting that putting a positive gloss on Mrs May’s plans would be like “polishing a turd”.
In his letter of resignation, he described her readiness to accept a “common rulebook” with the EU in trade on goods and her proposal of “impractical and undeliverable customs arrangements” as being like “sending our vanguard into battle with the white flags fluttering above them”.
Mr Johnson wrote: “Brexit should be about opportunity and hope. It should be a chance to do things differently, to be more nimble and dynamic and to maximise the particular advantages of the UK as an open, outward-looking global economy.
“That dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Mrs May should make way for a Labour administration if her Government cannot get its act together quickly.
The Chequers agreement “stands as a shattered truce, a sticking plaster over the Cabinet’s cracks in this Government”, Mr Corbyn told the Commons.