Brexit Spat Defused With Johnson Attending May’s Florence Speech

  • Foreign secretary dangled idea of resigning over her strategy
  • Both are in New York at the annual United Nations gathering

U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

Photographer: Simon Dawson

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and her errant foreign secretary appeared to have papered over their differences over Brexit, with Boris Johnson planning to attend her keynote speech in Florence after challenging her plan for leaving the European Union.

May and Johnson in June 2017.

Photographer: Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images

Tensions had flared between the Conservative leader and her top diplomat to the point that earlier Tuesday it looked like May was on the brink of firing him for insubordination and Johnson kept dangling the possibility he could resign over her softening positions.

In the latest twist, the top diplomat plans to be present when May unveils her plans to break an impasse in negotiations, with the bloc eager to know more about where she stands on payments into the EU budget and how long she wants a transitional period to last. Problem is her own cabinet is divided on all of it.

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.” Both are attending the United Nations annual gathering and staying in the same hotel. They could bump into each other at the Commonwealth reception Tuesday evening.

Media reports gave conflicting reports over Johnson’s future days after he released a 4,200-word opus on Brexit that took a harder line than others in the government.

Stay or Go?

The Daily Telegraph reported that Johnson, the figurehead of last year’s Leave campaign, may resign before the end of the week if he doesn’t like the contents of her speech. He told reporters after a jog that he won’t quit.

Even if they’ve come to some kind of understanding, it’s unlikely to last long.

At the heart of the conflict is whether May will sanction paying the EU for continued access to its single market for goods and services either for a temporary period after Brexit occurs in March 2019 or perhaps even in the long-term.

The Financial Times said that May will offer 20 billion euros ($24 billion) to fill a post-Brexit hole, the latest figure to be touted ahead of the Friday speech. May’s team seek 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.

Peterson Institute’s Adam Posen discusses Johnson’s comments with Francine Lacqua on "Bloomberg Surveillance."

(Source: Bloomberg)

May is being coy on that, saying only that “in the future, year on year on year, we will not be sending huge sums of money into the European Union.” The Telegraph, a Conservative-leaning newspaper for which Johnson used to write, reported that he was ready to walk out if May embraces a “Swiss model” for Brexit in which the U.K. pays for trade.

Read more about how trade is key to understanding the Brexit debate

Late Monday Johnson openly discussed leaving office in an interview, having shocked the political establishment late Friday with his Telegraph essay that argued that Britain shouldn’t offer cash to access its biggest market. He gave an upbeat assessment of the U.K.’s “glorious” future after the split.

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 afterward, he said he wanted to “understand what the regulatory requirements will be” after Brexit.

— With assistance by Svenja O'Donnell, and Tim Ross

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