Boris Johnson has used a stinging resignation speech to tell MPs that it was “not too late to save Brexit” but stopped short of a leadership challenge to Theresa May’s battered premiership.
The former foreign secretary, who resigned from the cabinet last week over May’s Chequers negotiating strategy, said the government had allowed a “fog of uncertainty” to descend since her Lancaster House speech in January 2017, which suggested a “comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement” with the EU27.
Later on Wednesday, May warned a meeting of her backbench MPs of the risks of a general election. Senior Conservatives said afterwards that she had weathered a febrile few days at Westminster, and would survive to resume battle with Brexit hardliners after the summer recess.
A sombre Johnson had told the House of Commons: “It is not too late to save Brexit. We have time in these negotiations. We have changed tack once and we can change again. The problem is not that we failed to make the case for a free trade agreement of the kind spelt out at Lancaster House – we haven’t even tried.”
He also appeared to lash out at fellow Brexiters, including his old rival Michael Gove, who have opted to stay inside the cabinet, believing they can fight for changes to the deal later.
“It is absolute nonsense to imagine, as I fear some of my colleagues do, that we can somehow afford to make a botched treaty now and then break and reset the bone later on,” said Johnson. “Because we have seen even in these talks how the supposedly provisional becomes eternal.”
Johnson did not call for May to step aside, nor urge his supporters to submit letters to Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Tory backbenchers’ committee, 48 of which would trigger a vote of no confidence, and potentially a leadership challenge.
But much of his speech was devoted to criticising the negotiating strategy that has been personally overseen by May. Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of MPs, later described the speech as “statesmanlike”.
Johnson’s departure – along with those of former Brexit secretary David Davis, former Brexit minister Steve Baker and a handful of more junior government figures – has underlined the deep divisions in the Conservative party, and the conundrum facing May as she tries to negotiate a deal that will satisfy parliament.