With just six months before Britain leaves the European Union, May’s precarious position at the helm of her party has been further shaken by criticism of her Brexit plans, both at home and in Brussels
BIRMINGHAM: Former foreign minister Boris Johnson will call on the governing Conservative Party on Tuesday to return to its traditional values of low tax and strong policing, pressing his challenge to British Prime Minister Theresa May.
With just six months before Britain leaves the European Union, May’s precarious position at the helm of her party has been further shaken by criticism of her Brexit plans, both at home and in Brussels.
Johnson, who became the figurehead for the campaign to leave the EU, has been one of her loudest critics, describing her plans to keep close ties with the bloc as “deranged” and little more than a bid to turn Britain into a vassal state.
May has shown little sign of moving away from her so-called Chequers plan, but after trying to display unity over Brexit at her party’s annual conference in the city of Birmingham, her former foreign secretary looks set to shatter those attempts.
In a speech that will do little to temper talk that Johnson, who quit over May’s Brexit plan, is launching a bid to replace her, he will urge the party against trying to “ape” the policies of the main opposition Labour Party.
“We must on no account follow (Labour leader Jeremy) Corbyn, and start to treat capitalism as a kind of boo word,” he will say, according to excerpts of his speech.
“We can’t lose our faith in competition and choice and markets but we should restate the truth that there is simply no other system that is so miraculously successful in satisfying human wants and needs.” May’s team had hoped the party’s annual conference would hand her a platform to revitalise a pledge she made when she became prime minister in 2016 to help those people who are “just about managing” and try to steal the initiative from Labour.
But the conference has been dominated by Brexit, with Euro-sceptic lawmakers attracting hundreds of Conservative members to their events on the fringes. Only handfuls turned out to hear ministers’ speeches in the main hall.
Johnson’s speech will do little to change that.
There is little doubt that he will renew his attack on May’s Brexit plans and call for support for his competing proposal — an enhanced free trade deal based on the one agreed between the EU and Canada.
Steve Baker, a former Brexit minister, offered Johnson some support by again defending the proposal — something May says would create a new border between the British province of Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.
“We believe that we have produced a proposal which can operate within the current framework of technology and administration to deliver a free flowing border with no infrastructure on the island of Ireland within the boundaries of a free-trade agreement,” Baker told BBC radio.
But May again said she was pressing on with her Chequers plan, named after her country residence where she hashed out agreement with her ministers in July, and that she would bring new proposals to unlock stalled Brexit talks.
The split over the EU, which has dogged the Conservative Party for decades, has never been wider.
Johnson, the first Conservative to become mayor of largely left-leaning London, will use his speech to try to get the party faithful onside, with a rallying cry to take the fight to the Labour Party.
He is not universally liked. Several members of the cabinet and in the wider party have criticised him for undermining May at a time when the talks to leave the EU are entering one of their toughest phases. Some have balked at the idea of him becoming party leader.
But his call to re-energise the Conservative brand will strike a chord with some members who fear that Labour has stolen the domestic agenda.
“We should set our taxes to stimulate investment and growth.
We should be constantly aiming not to increase but to cut taxes,” he will say. “It is the conservative approach that gets things done, so let’s follow our conservative instincts.”