Johnson plays down no-deal Brexit
Boris Johnson said yesterday he would only take Britain out of the EU without a deal as a “last resort”, launching his campaign to be prime minister with a promise to unify a country deeply divided over Brexit. The former foreign minister is the favourite among the 10 candidates vying to succeed Theresa May, who is stepping down after being forced to delay Britain’s departure from the European Union twice.
At a launch event in London packed with senior members of the ruling Conservative party, Johnson insisted that Brexit must happen on October 31, the latest deadline agreed with Brussels. He said Britain must prepare to leave with no new arrangements if need be, but softened his previous rhetoric, suggesting that this was “a last resort, not something that anybody desires”. However, as a protester outside shouted “Stop Brexit” and “Bollocks to Boris”, Johnson offered no details of how to break the deadlock in parliament that prevented May from getting her deal through.
He said a new government with “new optimism” and “total conviction about the way forward” could find a way. The EU has insisted repeatedly that it will not renegotiate the terms of the divorce, while parliament has voted against leaving without an accord. On Wednesday, a cross-party group of lawmakers made a fresh bid to block such a scenario happening in future.
Finance Minister Philip Hammond warned Johnson and other leadership rivals not to make promises on Brexit they could not keep. “The parliamentary arithmetic remains exactly the same, the European Union’s position remains exactly the same,” he said at a Bloomberg event.
Conservative lawmakers will hold the first of a series of secret ballots on Thursday on the leadership candidates, who also include Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. They will whittle down the field to two by June 20, and that pair will then be put to a ballot of around 160,000 Conservative party members.
The winner should be in Downing Street in late July but, if they cannot break the political deadlock in parliament, an election may be inevitable. Johnson’s supporters believe he is the only leader who can win against the twin threats of leftist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and eurosceptic Nigel Farage. On Wednesday, he warned that his party faced “mortal retribution from the electorate” if it failed to deliver Brexit. “Delay means defeat.
Delay means Corbyn. Kick the can and we kick the bucket,” he said. But in a repeat of moves earlier this year, Labour led an effort Wednesday to try to take control of the Commons timetable to legislate against a “no deal” in the future. The party’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, said threats of crashing out of the EU were “disturbing, ludicrous and reckless”.