Skip to main content

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit strategy has been thrown into more turmoil after a blistering attack from her leadership rival Boris Johnson, who said the plan would leave the U.K. in “miserable permanent limbo.”

Mr. Johnson, an ardent Brexit backer, resigned as Foreign Secretary last week in protest of Ms. May’s plan calling for the country to negotiate a customs arrangement with the European Union. Mr. Johnson had remained silent until Wednesday when he delivered a scathing assessment of the plan in the House of Commons and urged MPs to reject it. Calling the proposal “Brexit in name only,” Mr. Johnson accused Ms. May of dithering and backtracking.

“We are volunteering for economic vassalage,” Mr. Johnson told MPs. “It is not too late to save Brexit. We have time in these negotiations. We have changed tack once and we can change again.”

Mr. Johnson’s intervention was the latest in a string of attacks on Ms. May’s plan, which she hammered out with her cabinet on July 8 at the Prime Minister’s country estate known as Chequers. The strategy has bitterly divided her Conservative Party caucus and it barely survived a series of votes in the House of Commons this week. The EU has also expressed lukewarm interest in the proposal and there are growing indications that the plan won’t survive when negotiations on the terms of Britain’s departure resume on Thursday. Public opinion has also gone against Ms. May with several recent opinion polls showing up to 71 per cent of voters disapprove of how she is handling Brexit.

“Perhaps the biggest problem for the government is that many Leave voters do not think the [Chequers] agreement reflects what they believe the country voted for in the EU referendum,” polling expert John Curtice wrote in a report this week. “Moreover, those voters do not just think that the Prime Minister has been incompetent in developing her Brexit stance but rather they are also having doubts about whether the government is in favour of the kind of Brexit they want in the first place.”

The most contentious part of Ms. May’s proposal is the customs arrangement. Under the plan, the U.K. would continue to follow EU regulations relating to goods and farm products but it would leave the bloc’s formal customs union, which provides for the tariff-free movement of goods among member states. The U.K. could set its own tariffs and it would collect EU tariffs on goods entering the country but destined for EU members. That would obviate the need for a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, something the U.K. and the EU don’t want.

The plan initially infuriated Brexit backers such as Mr. Johnson, who felt it kept the U.K. too closely aligned with the EU. They also argued that it prevented the country from signing international trade deals because the U.K. would be bound by EU regulations. “Indeed, the result of accepting the EU’s rulebook, and our proposal of a fantastical [customs arrangement], is that we have much less scope to do free-trade deals … and which we should all acknowledge,” Mr. Johnson said on Wednesday. “Otherwise we continue to make the fatal mistake of underestimating the intelligence of the public, saying one thing to the EU about what we are really doing and pretending another to the electorate.”

This week Ms. May agreed to modify the plan slightly, but that only angered the soft Brexit backers in her caucus, who said she was caving in to the Brexiteers. A dozen Tory MPs were so angry they voted with the opposition Labour Party in a bid to scupper the modified version. They fell just three votes short and vowed to keep up their opposition. Some have gone so far as to call for a “national unity government” made up of Conservatives and Labour MPs to deal with Brexit.

Ms. May has insisted that her plan is a practical approach to Brexit and that the country will be able to sign trade deals. “Brexit continues to mean Brexit,” Ms. May told the House of Commons on Wednesday after being challenged by a Tory MP. "The Chequers agreement, the white paper are the basis for our negotiation with the European Union and we have already started those negotiations."

Time is getting short for Ms. May. The U.K. is to leave the EU on March 29, 2019, and the EU has said it wants negotiations on the future partnership to be settled by October to give member states enough time to ratify the deal. Irish Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar said his government has stepped up plans for a no-deal scenario, where the U.K. leaves without a deal and both sides trade based on World Trade Organization rules. “We can’t make assumptions that the withdrawal agreement will get through Westminster,” Mr. Varadkar told Irish media on Wednesday. “It’s not evident, or not obvious, that the government of Britain has the majority for any form of Brexit, quite frankly.”