In an intervention signalling his readiness for a leadership challenge, the former foreign secretary declared that the nation was crying out for “gumption” to solve the deadlock over the UK’s future relationship with the EU. And in a stinging blast at Downing Street, he accused the Prime Minister of pursuing a “sado-masochistic approach to Government” that could leave Britain “locked up in chains”. Mr Johnson broke cover as Mrs May was warned by allies she had just 48 hours to save her Brexit deal and her premiership.
The Prime Minister and senior Cabinet ministers were expected to spend this weekend bombarding Tory MPs with phone calls, emails and text messages to try to win their backing for her deal ahead of the crunch “meaningful vote” in the Commons on Tuesday.
She dispatched 30 ministers including Chancellor Philip Hammond and Health Secretary Matt Hancock around the country to try to sell her deal to voters in the hope of putting pressure on MPs.
And ministerial sources signalled that the Government was ready to back a backbench amendment to the motion on the Prime Minister’s deal that would seek to limit the controversial “backstop” border mechanism to a maximum of a year.
The proposals, tabled by loyalist MPs Hugo Swire and Richard Graham, was being seen as a compromise designed to win over rebels ahead of the vote.
Mr Johnson broke cover as Mrs May was warned by allies she had just 48 hours to save her deal
Chancellor Philip Hammond
Mr Johnson fired his leadership salvo in an interview on ConservativeHome, a website popular among Tory grassroots activists.
In an interview with the website, the former Cabinet minister called for a “generous, optimistic, energetic” renegotiation to win “a big free trade agreement” without the controversial “backstop” border mechanism that could tie the UK into close customs links with Brussels.
He also insisted the UK negotiators should refuse to hand over the promised £39billion divorce fee until the EU and show they are not afraid of trade links with the bloc based on World Trade Organisation rules.
He said: “I don’t want to pretend to the public there would be no disruption at all. I don’t want to pretend there would be no challenges at all.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock
“But what people I think want to see is a bit of gumption from this country and a bit of willingness to tackle those problems, and a bit of leadership.
“And I think people are fed up of being told their country can’t do something and we’re all incapable of sorting out these logistical problems.”
Deploying characteristically colourful language, Mr Johnson accused the Prime Minister of colluding in the UK’s entrapment by the EU.
“The manacles have been co-forged, if you like, by us. We have decided to collaborate in our own incarceration.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s a kind of S&M approach to Government. What perversion is it where you want to be locked up in chains?”
Pointing the way forward out of the current deadlock, the former foreign secretary said: “What she needs to do, or what the Government needs to do, is go back to Brussels and make it very clear that Parliament has not accepted the Withdrawal Agreement, and that it’s time for the backstop to come out, and time to negotiate a free trade agreement, to use the implementation period to do that.
“The idea of handing over £39 billion of taxpayers’ money now, in advance of the final deal, is very, very strange, and I think actually a complete mistake.
“And so I think what we need to do in the next phase is to say look, this cash could be available at the end of negotiations if you are supportive because at the moment they have not been supportive. They have been massively obstructive.
“This deal is a disaster for our country. It basically means the EU can blackmail us into any terms they like in the course of the negotiations on our future.
“Unless every single EU member state agrees to the terms of the new relationship, they can keep us in the backstop.
“And by being in the backstop, we are confined to the Customs Union, so we can’t do any free trade deals. It’s nonsense to say we can do free trade deals. The Government must stop saying this. You can’t set your own tariffs.”
He also warned that Mrs May’s deal would mean “we would be locked in” to regulatory alignment on food environment and social policy “unless we were willing to split up the Union, and split Northern Ireland away from Great Britain.”
“Meaningful vote” is due on Tuesday in the Commons
Mr Johnson warned that it was almost certainly too late for the Prime Minister to cancel the crunch Commons vote set for Tuesday on whether to endorse or reject her deal.
“That’s a matter for the Prime Minister. But I think it would be pretty odd to pull the vote now,” he said.
“I think it would be very, very odd now not to give Parliament its promised say on that treaty. So I hope that it will proceed to a vote. I believe that it will and I think that it will be voted down.
“It’s then that we need to do two things – I’m assuming that it’s voted down. I don’t want to anticipate the margin.”
Boris Johnson said that the deal is a disaster for Britain
Mr Johnson said Tory MPs wanted the chance to use the vote to make clear their position on the deal.
“People want to be able to express their views and the views of their constituents on the Withdrawal Agreement. That’s the agreement that determines our future negotiations with Brussels and indeed probably determines our future constitution for many, many years to come.”
The bitter row over Brexit within the Conservative Party deepened yesterday when 32 senior Tory activists released a joint letter demanding the immediate end to party funding for “what amounts to a propaganda campaign to get MPs to back the proposed deal.”
It followed fury that party funds were being used to print leaflets in support of Mrs May’s Brexit deal.
Copy of the Brexit withdrawal agreement
The letter was addressed to Andrew Sharpe, the Chairman of the National Conservative Convention, which is meeting today.
“These funds should not be used on divisive issues where the majority of members strongly object to a flawed agenda,” the letter said.
Mrs May was also warned yesterday that more frontbenchers may quit on Tuesday unless drastic changes are made to her deal.
Mike Wood, the parliamentary private secretary to International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, said he would quit his post unless the backstop was overhauled.
Mr Johnson addressed the letter to Andrew Sharpe, Chairman of the National Conservative Convention
He said yesterday: “What I have indicated to the Prime Minister is that while I support most of the deal, I have some big issues with the backstop. If some of those aren’t addressed then I don’t think I will be able to support it.
“Clearly the ministerial code says that if I can’t support, I would have to resign.
“I am very much hoping that there are enough changes and reassurances by Tuesday for me to vote with the Government.”
He added that other ministerial aides were considering their positions.