‘It’s not too late to save Brexit’: Boris Johnson slams Theresa May but doesn’t make bid for PM position

The former British foreign secretary stops short of a leadership challenge to Prime Minister Theresa May

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 July, 2018, 5:35am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 July, 2018, 6:19am

Britain’s former foreign secretary Boris Johnson used a stinging resignation speech on Wednesday to tell members of parliament that it was “not too late to save Brexit” but stopped short of a leadership challenge to Theresa May’s battered premiership.

Johnson, who resigned from the cabinet last week over May’s negotiating strategy, said that the government had allowed a “fog of uncertainty” to descend since Prime Minister May’s speech in January 2017, which suggested a “comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement” with the European Union.

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Later on Wednesday, May warned a meeting of her backbench MPs of the risks of a general election. Senior Conservatives said afterwards that she had weathered a febrile few days at Westminster, and would survive to resume battle with Brexit hardliners after the summer recess.

In effect, Johnson accused May of betraying millions of Brexit voters who favoured leaving the European Union and urged the government to rethink its strategy, adding that the country would never again have the chance to get it right.

Johnson, who led the main Brexit campaign in the 2016 referendum, resigned over May’s strategy, triggering the government’s biggest crisis since she lost her parliamentary majority after calling a snap election last year.

“It is not too late to save Brexit,” Johnson said in his speech. “We have time in these negotiations – we have changed tack once and we can change again.”

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He added: “The problem is not that we failed to make the case for a free-trade agreement of the kind spelt out at Lancaster House, we haven’t even tried. We must try now because we will not get another chance to get it right.”

Johnson did not call for May to step aside, nor urge a vote of no confidence, and potentially a leadership challenge.

But much of his speech was devoted to criticising the negotiating strategy, which has been personally overseen by May.

In a speech at Lancaster House in London 18 months ago, May listed 12 priorities for Brexit including the pursuit of a free-trade agreement with the European Union and an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Britain.

May’s government is now proposing to negotiate the closest possible commercial links – “a common rule book” – for goods trade with the EU, calling it the only way to balance political and economic priorities for Brexit.

But her plan, finalised this month at a cabinet meeting at her country house of Chequers, has pleased few on either side, compounding the divisions within the Conservative Party that have so far frustrated progress in talks with the EU.

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Many Brexit or “Leave” campaigners feel they are losing ground to voices questioning the meaning of the 2016 vote.

Johnson warned against making “the fatal mistake of underestimating the intelligence of the public” by saying one thing to the EU and pretending to do another thing to the public.

“It as though a fog of self-doubt has descended,” Johnson said. “We should not and need not be stampeded by anyone … Let us again aim explicitly for that glorious vision of Lancaster House … not the miserable permanent limbo of Chequers.”

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He also appeared to lash out at fellow Brexiters, including his old rival Michael Gove, who have opted to stay inside the cabinet, believing they can fight for changes to the deal later.

“It is absolute nonsense to imagine, as I fear some of my colleagues do, that we can somehow afford to make a botched treaty now and then break and reset the bone later on,” said Johnson.

“Because we have seen even in these talks how the supposedly provisional becomes eternal.”