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Brexit rift widens as Johnson talks of life after government

Brexit rift widens as Johnson talks of life after government

5 min. 19.09.2017 From our online archive
May will renew her efforts to show who is in charge again on Thursday, with a special cabinet meeting on the eve of her long-awaited Brexit speech in Florence, Italy.

(Bloomberg) UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempt to silence Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in the Brexit debate backfired as he gave an interview in which he openly discussed leaving office.

May will renew her efforts to show who is in charge again on Thursday, with a special cabinet meeting on the eve of her long-awaited Brexit speech in Florence, Italy. On Monday she told reporters on a trip to North America that Johnson’s 4,000-word essay on his Brexit vision wasn’t authorised and that she is in control of a government with an agreed policy.

Johnson, already in New York shaking hands with US President Donald Trump at the United Nations, responded by giving an interview in which he openly discussed Brexit options and then appeared to leave open the possibility he might quit in protest at May’s handling of delicate matters such as payments into the European Union budget and the length of the transition.

Asked if he was going to resign, he replied: "I think, if I may say, you may be barking slightly up the wrong tree." But then he went on to discuss what life would be like once he had left his job: "When the burden of office is lifted from my shoulders, I will of course look back with great pride on my time doing all sorts of things."

The strain between May and her top diplomat has the potential to become explosive at a critical time for Brexit negotiations and could damage them both with a potential showdown in New York. She’s lost her parliamentary majority and he could lose his job and a shot at becoming the next Conservative Party leader.

Johnson’s father, Stanley, added to the speculation that the minister could be on the way out when he told Sky News television that his son "would be happy happy happy to walk away from the whole thing, if indeed that’s what he had to do."

In his interview, the man who back in the UK just goes by the name Boris, said it was important not to "try and find rows where there are really not rows."

Behind his insistence that "there is one driver in this car -- it’s Theresa," he also created distance between himself and those in May’s team -- including Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and Brexit Secretary David Davis -- who want a transition period lasting several years that includes paying into the EU budget.

"On the transition period, I can see some vital importance of having some clarity and certainty since what all of us want is that it should not be too long," Johnson said.

Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings, the campaign director of Vote Leave and an ally of Johnson, launched one of his periodic attacks on Monday on the government’s handling of Brexit. His focus was the government’s decision to begin formal exit negotiations without preparing for the possibility that there wouldn’t be a deal.

It’s a Shambles

"The shambles now unfolding is a direct consequence of that historic unforgivable blunder," Cummings wrote on Twitter.

May earlier revealed she did not give her approval to Johnson to write his newspaper piece setting out his vision for Britain’s "glorious" future outside the EU and asserted that she -- not he -- was in charge.

The timing of the piece -- on the day of a terrorist attack -- drew immediate rebuke. Cabinet ministers accused him of seeking to dictate government policy like a "back-seat" driver.

"This government is driven from the front, and we’re all going to the same destination,’’ May told reporters on board her plane as she traveled to Ottawa on Monday. "Look, Boris is Boris. I am clear what the government is doing and what the cabinet is agreed on.’’

Political observers saw in Johnson’s intervention an attempt to railroad May into taking a harder line on Brexit, ahead of the major speech she’s making on the subject in Italy on Friday, as more dovish voices like Hammond have been more vocal about driving the direction of Brexit.

May’s authority over the Conservative Party was shredded after she called a snap election and lost her majority in June. People like Hammond who were shut out before are now being heard. Johnson, who might have chosen to mount a challenge, instead backed her.

He risks the wrath of colleagues if he’s seen to be instrumental in pushing May out, and that could undermine his own chances of succeeding her. For her part, May needs to make a political calculation if she can afford to let go of Johnson or if she still needs his stamp of approval.

"There are rules called collective responsibility," former Tory Chancellor Kenneth Clarke told BBC Radio 4. "Sounding off in this way is completely unacceptable. Unfortunately after the general election it’s difficult for her to sack him."

Johnson latest foray threw plans for May’s Florence speech into disarray. She is hoping to break the deadlock in negotiations, which have stalled over the question of the UK’s divorce settlement. There is speculation May will use her speech to signal that Britain will keep paying money to the EU after it quits the bloc.

For Johnson, the money question is critical. Taking back control over billions of pounds of contributions to the EU was a key promise of the pro-Brexit campaign in last year’s referendum, which he led.

On Sunday, Johnson clashed with the UK statistics watchdog over the claim he made in his Telegraph article that Britain pays £350 million (€396 million) a week to the EU, money he wants to spend on the health service instead. The watchdog said Johnson was improperly using the figures.

Asked about Johnson’s suggestion that the money should go to the National Health Service, a referendum-year pledge from Brexit supporters that Johnson revived, May said that would be up to the government. May also refused to rule out making payments of around £10 billion a year to the EU during a transitional exit period. 

"Lots of figures have been thrown around,’’ she said. "Negotiations are about a lot more than money. They’re about how we withdraw and get that orderly process of withdrawal, but they’re also about how we build that deep and special partnership for the future.’’

May and Johnson haven’t spoken since his article was published. It remains to be seen if they put aside their differences by the time they both get to London -- and in time for Italy.