Boris Johnson has called on Theresa May to abandon the "miserable, permanent limbo"of her Chequers plan for a soft Brexit and to seek the clean break from the EU outlined in her Lancaster House speech last year.
The former foreign secretary made the comments during a resignation statement in the House of Commons as the prime minister appeared to have stabilised her leadership after narrowly escaping defeat in a key vote on Tuesday.
Mr Johnson avoided attacking Ms May directly, but he offered a brutal critique of the Chequers proposal, which would keep Britain aligned with EU regulations for goods and agri-food following its exit from the bloc.
"Far from making laws in Westminster, there are large sectors in which ministers will have no power to initiate, innovate or even deviate. After decades in which UK ministers have gone to Brussels and expostulated against costly EU regulation, we are now claiming that we must accept every jot and tittle of it for our own economic health – and with no say of our own, and no way of protecting our businesses and entrepreneurs from rules that may be not in their interests," he said of the plan.
Mr Johnson said that, instead of trying to negotiate a free trade deal with the EU, the British government had dithered for 18 months and offered unnecessary compromises. He also took aim at the prime minister's commitment to agreeing a backstop that would guarantee that there could be no hard Border in Ireland.
“No one wants a hard Border. You couldn’t construct one if you tried. But there certainly can be different rules north and south of the Border to reflect the fact that there are two different jurisdictions. In fact there already are. There can be checks away from the Border and technical solutions, as the PM described [in her speech] at Mansion House. In fact there already are,” he said.
“But when I and other colleagues proposed further technical solutions to make customs and regulatory checks remotely, they were never properly examined, as if such solutions had become intellectually undesirable in the context of the argument.
“And somehow, after the December joint report whose backstop arrangement we were all told was entirely provisional, never to be invoked, it became taboo even to discuss technical fixes.”
Describing the Chequers proposal as Brexit in name only, Mr Johnson said Ms May still had time to change course and to prepare for the hard Brexit he claimed would unite Conservatives.
“That was the vision of Brexit we fought for; that was the vision the prime minister rightly described last year. That is the prize. And if the PM can fix that vision once again before us then I believe she can deliver a great Brexit for Britain, with a positive and self-confident approach that will unite this party, unite this House, and unite the country as well,” he said.
Divisions on display
Conservative divisions over Brexit were on display during prime minister's questions on Wednesday, as Brexiteers criticised the Chequers proposal and former Brexit secretary David Davis called on Ms May to publish a draft post-Brexit free trade deal his department drew up based on EU precedents.
The prime minister said her government had agreed on a proposal for Britain’s future relationship with the EU and had already started engaging on it with negotiators in Brussels.
"What I want to see is not just an amalgam of those free trade agreements but an ambitious plan – which is what I believe we have produced – that will protect jobs in this country, deliver on the referendum result and, crucially, ensure that we have no hard Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland," she said.
On Wednesday evening, when the prime minister met the 1922 Committee group of Conservative backbenchers, one MP announced that he was withdrawing a letter calling for a vote of no confidence in her leadership. Simon Clarke said he had put in the letter – 48 of which are needed to trigger a confidence vote – after Mr Johnson and Mr Davis resigned from the cabinet, but he had subsequently changed his mind.
“We have got a mission in government and it is serious. God knows, the threat of a Corbyn government is real,” he said.