Johnson Backs Down From Threat to Quit Over May’s Brexit SpeechBy
Foreign Secretary will join her for EU speech in Florence
May’s office rejects idea she’s made any concessions
U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson backed away from his threat to quit the government over Theresa May’s Brexit strategy, clearing the path for the prime minister to make a pitch for a deal to the rest of the European Union.
A day after Johnson openly discussed the possibility of life out of office, a person familiar with his plans said that he would after all be attending May’s speech in Florence on Friday, where she will give what she’s called an “update” on her Brexit plans.
“I am mystified by all this stuff,” Johnson told the Guardian newspaper, in an interview. “Not me, guv. I don’t know where it’s coming from, honestly.”
Peace was brokered on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, which both May and Johnson are attending. On Tuesday morning, May’s office said Johnson wouldn’t be joining his boss at a reception that evening for members of the Commonwealth, despite it being central to his job. Hours later, it was announced he would attend after all.
An aide to May, who declined to be named, rejected the idea that the foreign secretary’s change of heart was the result of concessions made to him on the contents of the Florence speech. The prime minister will lay out the details of the speech to a special cabinet meeting in London on Thursday morning.
That will clear the way for Friday, when the bloc will be eager to find out more about where May stands on payments into the EU budget and how long she wants a transitional period to last. The problem is her own cabinet is divided on all of it, with the fourth round of talks due to start Sept. 25.
It remains to be seen if anything of what she will say will be deemed sufficient by the other side to unblock negotiations that have hit a dead end. The clock is ticking down to Brexit day in March 2019, and while the EU may appreciate a more conciliatory tone, it wants details on money among other things before it will agree to move the conversation to trade.
Johnson sparked the crisis last week when he penned a 4,200-word article setting out his vision for Brexit. In particular, he repeated the controversial claim that leaving the EU would mean Britain had 350 million pounds ($473 million) a week to spend on other things, and urged that this should go to the National Health Service. The promise to do this, made during the Brexit referendum campaign, is closely associated with Johnson.
Other members of May’s cabinet, and then the prime minister herself, slapped him down, insisting that she was in charge of Brexit policy, that spending decisions would be made later, and that the 350 million-pound number was wrong. Talking to reporters, May seemed to distinguish between Johnson’s views and the position of the government as a whole.
Already in New York, Johnson spent Monday escalating things, discussing Brexit in a television interview and going on to talk about whether he might resign. On Tuesday morning, May declined to rule out firing him.
Asked directly by Sky News whether Johnson should be ousted for freelancing on how Britain should depart, May ducked the question and gave the tepid endorsement that he is "doing good work" as her top diplomat.
“Boris and others” are “all very clear about the destination we have as a country and that is getting that deep and special relationship with the EU when we leave,” May said.
In what appears to have been the peak of the crisis, the Daily Telegraph reported that Johnson would resign before the end of the week if he didn’t like the contents of the Florence speech. The pound strengthened on the report.
On Tuesday evening, after Johnson had backed down, the Financial Times reported that May will offer 20 billion euros ($24 billion) to fill a post-Brexit hole in the EU’s budget, the latest figure to be touted ahead of the speech.
May’s team seeks to offer assurances that the gesture will help unblock negotiations and nudge the talks toward trade, the newspaper reported citing unidentified officials briefed on the discussions. While an aide to the prime minister denied the story, May on Monday refused to deny the U.K. might pay 10 billion euros a year in a two-year transition period.
While Johnson was putting pressure on May from one side, at a meeting with businesses investing in the U.K. on the sidelines of the UN, she was reminded of the need to get a deal that doesn’t scare companies off.
“What we need is clarity and consistency,” Ken Frazier, CEO and president of Merck & Co., told the prime minister at the start of the meeting. In an interview afterwards, he said he wanted to “understand what the regulatory requirements will be” after Brexit.
— With assistance by Svenja O'Donnell, and Tim Ross