Brexit minister Lord Frost has resigned “with immediate effect” as he told Boris Johnson that building a new relationship with the EU would be a “long-term task”.
Lord Frost, who has led negotiations with the EU, is reported to have handed in his resignation letter to Boris Johnson last week with an agreement to leave in January.
But in a letter to the PM released on Saturday evening, he said that he was “disappointed that this plan has become public this evening and in the circumstances I think it is right for me to write to step down with immediate effect”.
Lord Frost thanked Mr Johnson and said “Brexit is now secure”, but he said: “The challenge for the Government now is to deliver on the opportunities it gives us.
“You know my concerns about the current direction of travel.”
He also said he was sad the unlocking from Covid restrictions had not proved “irreversible” as promised, and added: “I hope we can get back on track soon and not be tempted by the kind of coercive measures we have seen elsewhere.”
And he expressed his wish that the UK would become a “lightly regulated, low-tax” country.
In his reply, Mr Johnson he was “very sorry” to have received his resignation.
Lord Frost’s departure was described as a “watershed moment” by prominent Brexiteer Tory Andrew Bridgen.
He told Times Radio it was a “devastating blow for the Government and the Prime Minister” and suggested that many Conservative colleagues would be considering the PM’s future over Christmas.
In a tweet, he added Mr Johnson was “running out of time and out of friends to deliver on the promises and discipline of a true Conservative Government”.
He said: “Lord Frost has made it clear, 100 Conservative backbenchers have made it clear, but most importantly so did the people of North Shropshire.”
Lord Frost’s quitting piles more pressure on the PM, who has already suffered potentially his worst week politically since becoming Prime Minister with the rebellion, the loss of a former Tory safe seat in the North Shropshire by election, and continued allegations over parties in Whitehall during lockdown restrictions.
In Northern Ireland, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said Lord Frost’s departure was a bad sign for Mr Johnson’s commitment to removing the Irish Sea border.
Sir Jeffrey said: “This government is distracted by internal strife, and Lord Frost was being frustrated on a number of fronts.
“We wish David well. We enjoyed a strong relationship with him and his team, but this raises more serious questions for the Prime Minister and his approach to the NI Protocol.”
While Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said the news showed “a Government in total chaos right when the country faces an uncertain few weeks”.
She tweeted: “@BorisJohnson isn’t up to the job. We deserve better than this buffoonery.”
Baroness Jenny Chapman, Lord Frost’s opposite number for Labour, added: “The Government is in chaos.
“The country needs leadership not a lame duck PM who has lost the faith of his MPs and Cabinet.
“Boris Johnson needs to get a grip, tell us his plan for the next few weeks and bring certainty for the people of Northern Ireland by unblocking the stalemate over the Protocol.”
One of Lord Frost’s most difficult challenges had been attempting to find a way to resolve issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol, which aims to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
But the implementation of the protocol has caused issues with customs, agrifood, trade, and medicines – among other things.
Movement was found this week on medicines, but red lines remain for both sides, including for the UK the oversight role of the European Court of Justice.
Lord Frost said this week he expected negotiations with the EU to now run into 2022.
Stormont deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said Northern Ireland would not become “collateral damage in the Tory chaos”.
She tweeted: “David Frost negotiated Brexit of which a majority here rejected. He has undermined the Protocol since, which limits the damage of Brexit on our people and economy.
“We now need momentum in the talks to make it work better.
“The North will not be collateral damage in the Tory chaos.”
And Northern Ireland’s former first minister Arlene Foster described Lord Frost’s resignation as “enormous”.
In a tweet, she said: “The resignation of Lord Frost from the Cabinet is a big moment for the Government but enormous for those of us who believed he would deliver for NI.”
Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson Layla Moran said: “This shock resignation is a sign of the chaos and confusion at the heart of this Conservative government.
“The rats are fleeing Boris Johnson’s sinking ship as he lurches from crisis to crisis.
“Even the Prime Minister’s once-loyal supporters are now abandoning him, just as lifelong Conservative voters are switching in their droves to the Liberal Democrats.
“At a time we need strong leadership to get us through the pandemic, we instead have a weak Prime Minister who has lost the support of his allies and the trust of the British people.”