Boris Johnson reminds May that his ambition is undimmed
Former foreign secretary uses resignation speech to describe Brexit plan as ‘vassalage’
Boris Johnson chose to deliver his resignation statement from the same position in the House of Commons where Geoffrey Howe made the speech that triggered Margaret Thatcher’s downfall 28 years ago. But where Howe’s speech had the sharp crackle of a targeted assassination, Johnson’s was a low, ominous rumble warning Theresa May of her political mortality.
Encircled by rapt Brexiteers, Johnson began with a tribute to the staff of the foreign office and some brisk words of praise for May’s “courage and resilience”. But when he celebrated the prime minister’s vision of “Global Britain” set out at Lancaster House last year, it was only to lament her abandonment of it in favour of the “vassalage” of her Chequers proposal.
She had, he said, spent the last 18 months in a fog of self-doubt during which she dithered and “burned through negotiating capital”, making needless concessions to the European Union.
“Worst of all, we allowed the question of the Northern Ireland border, which had hitherto been assumed on all sides to be readily soluble, to become so politically charged as to dominate the debate,” he said.
Instead of exploring technological and administrative solutions to allow trade to flow freely between north and south across separate jurisdictions, the prime minister had agreed to a backstop to guarantee there could be no hard border.
“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,” he said.
Describing the Chequers plan as “Brexit in name only”, Johnson said it would leave Britain as a rule-taker from Brussels, accepting “every jot and tittle” of EU regulations on goods and agrifoods. Urging the prime minister to change tack by returning to the bare-bones Brexit she described at Lancaster House, he said Britain had “fully 2½ years” to make the necessary preparations for a free-trade deal or to trade with the EU on World Trade Organisation rules.
This assumes, however, that Britain secures a transition agreement with the EU that would keep customs union and single-market access unchanged until December 2020. The EU has made clear that there will be no transition arrangement without a withdrawal agreement and that there can be no such agreement without a Border backstop.
Johnson’s admirers among backbench Brexiteers are unperturbed by such gaps in his logic and will have welcomed his swipe at former allies like Michael Gove who have remained in the cabinet in the hope of improving May’s deal after Britain leaves the EU.
If his speech is unlikely to find its way into many anthologies, it served as a reminder of Johnson’s undiminished capacity to excite attention and to cheer up a section of the Conservative Party. And it was a warning to the prime minister that his ambition, too, remains undimmed.