Boris Johnson won cheers at the U.K. Conservative Party’s annual conference with an attack on Theresa May’s Brexit plan, but stopped short of calling for her to be removed as prime minister.
While the former foreign secretary stole the limelight from the main conference agenda and laid into May’s strategy to extricate the U.K. from the European Union, his failure to move in for the kill reflected the knowledge among Brexit hardliners that they don’t have the numbers to topple her.
In a 40-minute speech, Johnson delighted the crowd with jokes, calls for lower taxes and higher spending — two things the ruling party that introduced austerity has long argued the U.K. cannot afford. Most of his hardest punches were directed at Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, who mocked Johnson’s ambition earlier this week.
The main body of the speech, delivered to a packed 1,500-seat hall, was devoted to denouncing May’s plan as not a proper Brexit. “If we cheat the electorate — and Chequers is a cheat — we’ll escalate the level of mistrust.”
But rather giving May her marching orders — something the audience was anticipating might happen — he instead urged her to return to the Brexit vision she had originally articulated in her 2017 Lancaster House speech. That means leaving the EU’s single market and customs union without any ambiguity.
“This is not democracy,” he said of May’s current plan. “That is not what we voted for. It’s not taking back control. It’s forfeiting control.”
Johnson and other Brexiteers have called for a free-trade agreement with the EU, similar to the type Canada has. But critics say it wouldn’t solve the problem of how to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic after Brexit — a key sticking point in talks.
In an interview with the BBC Tuesday, May said hers is the only Brexit plan that solves the issue.
“There are one or two things that Boris said that I’m cross about,” May said. “He wants to tear up our guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland. We have a guarantee for the people of Northern Ireland and we are upholding that.”
With his speech, Johnson reminded delegates that he remains available should May be pushed overboard. Andrew Bridgen, a Tory lawmaker who has called for May to go, said “there is no vacancy at the moment but I tell you now if there was Boris would get my support — 100 percent.”
Johnson opened with a self-deprecating joke. “I want to congratulate my friend Philip Hammond for predicting that I will never become prime minister,” he said. “The first Treasury forecast in a long time I think to have the distinct ring of truth.”
He said he’d come “to put some lead into the collective pencil” of the Conservative Party and reinvigorate their belief in freedom.
And the audience certainly enjoyed his mix of attacks on the opposition Labour Party, on the EU, and on May’s Brexit plan. But Tim Bale, author of “The Conservatives From Thatcher to Cameron,” was left unimpressed.
“It was a typical combination of tired farce, tub-thumping fantasy, and mischievous maneuvering,” said Bale, who watched the speech in the hall. “And ultimately an anticlimax.”
Without sufficient support to remove May, Brexiteers have focused their fire on her negotiating strategy instead. There were enough lawmakers in the hall to defeat her in any vote, but the question is whether it will come to that.
For much of the week, the prime minister’s opponents have argued that her plan will be rejected by the EU anyway. Johnson disagreed, saying that despite current bust-ups, it might ultimately be agreed.
In that situation, Johnson would have to decide whether to lead a rebellion against it. May attempted to laugh off this week’s scene-stealing, but that would be a more serious matter.