Brexit: Boris Johnson appeals to Tory hardliners with tough talk

Leadership contender promises aggressive stance on divorce bill and Border backstop

Boris Johnson: promises to shed the ‘intellectual prison’ of the backstop. Photograph: Andrew Yates/File Photo/Reuters

Boris Johnson: promises to shed the ‘intellectual prison’ of the backstop. Photograph: Andrew Yates/File Photo/Reuters

 

Boris Johnson’s promise to withhold part of Britain’s £39 billion EU divorce bill and to defer the issue of the Border was enough to persuade hardliners such as Steve Baker and Priti Patel to endorse him as the man to deliver what they call a “clean, managed Brexit”.

But there may be less to Johnson’s pledges than meets the eye and both are wrapped in caveats that offer ample room for manoeuvre.

The divorce bill is made up of a number of elements, including spending commitments Britain has already made and the cost of a transition period that would follow the adoption of the withdrawal agreement.

Johnson’s promise to the Brexiteers is that he will refuse to write the “entire cheque” before reaching a final deal. But the EU is not asking for the full sum to be paid right away, and the withdrawal agreement envisages Britain’s payments being spread over decades.

Johnson promises to shed the “intellectual prison” of the backstop and defer discussion of Border arrangements to the next phase of negotiations. But it is also the EU’s position that Border arrangements will be discussed in the context of the broader trade agreement, with the backstop as an insurance policy.

Question of attitude

Johnson is not promising a plan for negotiating Brexit as much as an attitude, reassuring Brexiteers that he will bring more bluster and bravado to Brussels. And in claiming against all evidence that he can renegotiate the backstop, Johnson is promising no more than most of his rivals for the Conservative leadership.

Sajid Javid believes Dublin will agree to new Border arrangements if London promises to pay for them. And Jeremy Hunt thinks Angela Merkel will persuade other EU leaders to renegotiate the Brexit deal.

Michael Gove’s policy proposals were drowned out over the weekend by his admission that he took cocaine 20 years ago when he was still a journalist. Gove’s tough public stance on drugs has invited accusations of hypocrisy, and the story could prove fatal to his candidacy.

This is because it undermines the strongest argument for remainer MPs to vote for him: that only a fellow Brexiteer had any chance of defeating Johnson among the party membership. Those MPs could now shift their support to someone more in tune with their own views, such as Hunt, Javid, health secretary Matt Hancock or even international development secretary Rory Stewart – the only candidate to acknowledge that the solution to Brexit will not be found in Brussels but at Westminster.

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