Boris stirs up Brexit debate ahead of PM’s big speech
In setting out his own vision for Brexit, Boris Johnson has stirred up colleagues and increased the pressure on British Prime Minister Theresa May ahead of her big speech on Europe later this week.
The foreign secretary was accused of “backseat driving” by a fellow minister and rebuked by the statistics watchdog for his article outlining how “glorious” life will be outside the European Union.
But his 4,000-word essay also drew praise from eurosceptic members of the ruling Conservative party for his demand for a clean break with the EU, in particular on the fraught issue of financial payments.
Many people saw it as an attempt to force May’s hand ahead of Friday’s speech in the Italian city of Florence, when she will give an update on her plans and the progress of negotiations with the EU.
“You could call it backseat driving,” Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who campaigned to stay in the EU, told BBC television on Sunday.
But May herself insisted Monday that she was in control, telling reporters on a trip to Canada: “This government is driven from the front.”
“Boris is Boris,” she added, according to British media.
May’s grip on power remains fragile after losing her parliamentary majority in the June election, and with it her ability to force through Brexit.
Johnson was a leading voice for Brexit in last year’s referendum and has long been tipped for the top job.
Publicly, he has pledged his support for May, who he will join at the United Nations in New York this week.
“Looking forward to PM’s Florence speech. All behind Theresa for a glorious Brexit,” he tweeted.
‘Punctured the gloom’
Johnson has been largely silent on domestic issues for several months, but a number of newspaper articles last week suggested he was disgruntled with the progress of Brexit.
With questionable timing — on Friday night, hours after a bomb attack in London — he laid out the opportunities of Brexit with his usual flair in an article for the Daily Telegraph.
“I am here to tell you that this country will succeed in our new national enterprise, and will succeed mightily,” he wrote.
Johnson argued against paying for continued access to Europe’s single market — a possibility other ministers have left open.
He also revived a hotly contested referendum campaign claim that Britain would regain £350 million a week to spend on public services once it stops paying into the EU budget.
The head of the independent UK Statistics Authority, David Norgrove, rebuked Johnson for a “clear misuse of official statistics”, saying the figure confused gross and net contributions.
But Eurosceptic Conservative lawmakers welcomed Johnson’s intervention, with one, Jacob Rees-Mogg, saying he was “loyally putting forward government policy… with panache”.
Another, Nadine Dorries, wrote on Twitter: “The PM is not furious. It was a drum roll for her speech next week. It punctured the gloom.”
The row made headline news even as British authorities dealt with Friday’s bombing, the fifth terror attack in six months, which injured 30 people.
“Party discord: Think many would agree we are not witnessing our finest hour, at a testing time when poise, purpose and unity are called for,” tweeted junior defence minister Tobias Ellwood.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said Johnson was “desperately concerned not to be forgotten — after all, he still wants to be leader”.
Matthew d’Ancona, a columnist in The Guardian, added: “This is really about the prime minister, rather than Johnson himself.
“The ridiculous pretence that all is well in her administration has been decisively and brutally punctured.”