U.K. lawmakers called for Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to be fired after he threw himself back into the Brexit debate with a newspaper article that was seen as undercutting Prime Minister Theresa May days before she is set to refresh her own strategy for the split.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph a day after a failed bomb attack in London, the figurehead of last year’s campaign to leave the European Union outlined what he called a “glorious” vision for the U.K. outside of the bloc, prompting criticism he is undermining May and possibly reviving his own leadership ambitions. Home Secretary Amber Rudd described it as “backseat driving.”
“It puts Theresa May in an impossible position, I can’t understand why she hasn’t fired him,” Vince Cable, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, said on the BBC. “He has a completely and utterly different view of what Brexit means from the rest of the cabinet,” he said, adding that the “civil war” in May’s government will hamper talks with the EU.
Unidentified lawmakers within May’s Conservative Party were cited by newspapers, including the Mail on Sunday and the Observer, as demanding Johnson’s ouster for a move seen as a bid to replace her. Ruth Davidson, the party’s Scotland leader, tweeted that “on the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”
First Secretary of State Damian Green, effectively May’s deputy, told Sky News on Sunday that Johnson will not lose his job over his intervention or its timing. He insisted May’s government is united in its determination to deliver Brexit.
“No, he isn’t,” Green said when asked about a possible Johnson dismissal. “The reason is that he, like the rest of the cabinet, like the prime minister, is all about wanting to get the best deal for the British people.”
Johnson argued that the U.K. should not pay to access Europe’s single market for goods and services after Brexit, countering an idea suggested as possible by Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and Brexit Secretary David Davis. He also revived the much-criticized claim that by leaving Britain will free up as much as 350 million pounds ($476 million) a week to spend on healthcare.
Seeking to paint Brexit as positive for the U.K. economy as it shows signs of weakening, Johnson said quitting the EU would allow the government to strike new trade deals, revamp the tax system, reboot infrastructure projects, advance science and improve access to housing.
“This country will succeed in our new national enterprise, and will succeed mightily,’’ he said, dismissing any suggestion that Brexit will be reversed.
Rudd said that while Johnson’s article was “backseat driving” over Brexit, it was “absolutely fine” for him to intervene. She also made it clear she doesn’t want him leading the party.
“Boris has had his say and he shows that energy and enthusiasm that he’s famous for,” Rudd told the BBC. “I don’t want him managing the Brexit process, what we’ve got is Theresa May managing that process, she’s driving the car and I’m going to make sure we help her do that.”
Johnson wrote in the article, which was published behind the Telegraph’s paywall, that the separation should take the form outlined by the prime minister in January and which he argued the majority of Britons voted for in June 2016.
“Before the referendum, we all agreed on what leaving the EU logically must entail: leaving the customs union and the single market, leaving the penumbra of the European Court of Justice; taking back control of our borders, cash, laws,’’ Johnson said. “That is what she and her government will deliver.”
Johnson’s article is a public attempt to shape May’s thinking a week before she speaks in Florence, Italy, amid speculation she will update her approach to the divorce by seeking a post-Brexit transitional period. Johnson didn’t mention such a phase.
In a Twitter posting Saturday, Johnson declared: “Looking forward to PM’s Florence speech. All behind Theresa for a glorious Brexit.”
His comments also could lay the groundwork for a possible bid to lead the Conservative Party three months after it lost its parliamentary majority in an election called by May. The Tories hold their annual conference Oct. 1 with May’s authority sapped by the botched election.
Johnson led the Leave campaign into the June 2016 referendum and for a time was the front-runner to succeed David Cameron as prime minister. He decided against standing as a candidate after a public attack on his abilities by fellow lawmaker and onetime supporter Michael Gove.
He instead joined May’s Cabinet, from where he’s tended to take harder and more optimistic lines than her on Brexit. He said earlier this year that EU officials could “go whistle” if they expected the U.K. to pay a large financial settlement. He subsequently conceded some money would be paid. Last October he declared Britain’s approach to the Brexit negotiations was “having our cake and eating it.”
Johnson’s article didn’t offer solutions to the main sticking points in the Brexit negotiations, namely how to deal with citizens’ rights, Northern Ireland’s border with Ireland, and the financial settlement. Officials in the EU say failure to break the current deadlock on those topics mean they are unlikely to back the start of trade talks next month as once hoped. They are looking to May’s speech to provide some clarity, especially on money.
“It would be very nice if we could get a clear message on where the British are” on their financial obligations with the EU, Danish Finance Minister Anders Samuelsen said in an interview in Copenhagen on Friday. “The more concrete the message she gives, the better.”