Boris Johnson gags fall flat as Brexit speech short on content

Analysis: UK lack of clarity on exit transition evident as mood in Brussels grows darker

Wednesday's speech on Brexit was, his admirers agreed, a return to form for Boris Johnson after months during which the foreign secretary appeared to have lost much of his sparkle. All the old trademarks were there: references to ancient history (the Babylonian legal code of Hammurabi); a few words of Latin (post hoc ergo propter hoc); a descent into the demotic ("cheapo flights to stag dos"); and some dubious laugh lines (about sex tourism and "dogging").

But like a retired entertainer on a comeback tour, Johnson struggled to recapture the old magic as the gags fell flat and he stood sweating and his audience stayed silent. As with most flops, the problem lay in the material – Johnson had nothing to say about Brexit that anyone needed to hear.

Brexit was not, the foreign secretary said, a great V-sign from the cliffs of Dover or about returning to “some autarkic 1950s menu of spam and cabbage and liver”. But to take advantage of the opportunities he saw in leaving the EU, Britain must not be bound into the European regulatory system.

Regulatory alignment

Here, Johnson was setting out his position within the internal cabinet debate about regulatory alignment with the EU after Brexit. Chancellor Philip Hammond and home secretary Amber Rudd, in common with most of British business, want to remain as closely aligned with the EU as possible. Johnson wants Britain to be able to choose to align with EU regulations if it wishes to do so but insists that it must have no treaty obligation to adhere to EU rules.


Theresa May is taking senior ministers on an eight-hour "away day" at the end of this month, during which she hopes they will agree on a common approach to the next phase of Brexit talks with the EU. A likely compromise would call for regulation of some elements of the economy to be fully aligned with the EU, while other sectors shadow EU regulations and some ignore them altogether.

There is, however, no appetite for such a proposal in Brussels, where the mood towards Britain has darkened in recent weeks amid disagreements over the terms of a transition arrangement. The atmosphere is about to get worse, as Michel Barnier prepares to publish a draft legal text based on the deal agreed in December, which includes a guarantee that there will be no hard border in Ireland.

Officials in London fear that a text that clarifies the meaning of Britain’s promise to ensure regulatory alignment between North and South will have an explosive impact on the cabinet’s internal debate – and on May’s allies in the DUP.