Ex-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has branded British Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan for leaving the European Union “deranged,” fueling tensions as the ruling Conservative Party holds its annual conference.
Johnson told the Sunday Times that May’s Brexit plan won’t work, particularly proposals that would require Britain and the EU to collect each other’s tariffs.
“It is entirely preposterous,” he said. “The idea that we could ask customs officers in Dubrovnik and Santander to charge British-only tariffs is deranged, and nobody thinks it can work. There will be economic and political damage to the UK”
May is under siege from members of her own party as the Conservatives open their annual conference Sunday in the central England city of Birmingham.
While most conferences offer a chance for the leader to rally the troops, May’s goal at this four-day gathering is to survive amid deepening opposition to her Brexit plan and growing support for a second referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
May’s plan would keep Britain in the EU’s single market for goods while letting the country write its own rules on services and strike free-trade deals with third parties. EU leaders have rejected that idea, saying the UK wants to retain the benefits of EU membership without accepting its responsibilities.
Hard-line Brexit supporters also oppose the prime minister’s plan because they say it would force Britain to follow rules set in Brussels, undercutting promises that the country would regain control of its own laws after Brexit.
May insisted that her plans, ratified by the Cabinet during a summer meeting at the prime minister’s country estate, Chequers, remain viable, despite its rejection by EU leaders.
“Where they have problems, let’s actually hear them. And it’s only then that you can actually identify what the issue really is, where there are issues that lie behind this,” she told the BBC’s Andrew Marr program on Sunday. “My mood is to listen to what the EU have to say about their concerns and to sit down and talk them through with them.”
Asked about Mr Johnson’s claim that her plan was “deranged,” May said: “I have just explained to you why I believe that the plan that we have put forward is a plan that is in the national interest.”
Johnson is among a group of eurosceptics in her Conservative party who are using the conference in Birmingham to make the case for a looser trade agreement.
Several backbench MPs also joined former UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage, a leading Brexit campaigner, at a rally here Sunday, demanding May “chuck” her plan.
The prime minister is already under intense pressure from EU leaders, who earlier this month rejected her trade plan and demanded a rethink before a summit in mid-October.
Meanwhile pro-European Conservatives joined hundreds of people chanting “Bollocks to Brexit” at a rival rally calling for a new EU referendum.
May has repeatedly ruled out a new Brexit vote, and insists her plan is the only way to protect cross-border trade in goods and avoid physical checks on the Irish border.
Analysts believe May will have to give further ground to Brussels to secure a withdrawal agreement before Brexit in March next year, but no announcements are expected in Birmingham.
Johnson’s successor, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, warned EU leaders not to make the bloc a prison, or “we won’t be the only prisoner that will want to escape.”
But his conference speech also had a message for colleagues that their in-fighting threatened undermining Brexit, or handing power to opposition leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“Never forget that disunity and division won’t give us a better Brexit but the wrong Brexit, a Corbyn Brexit or perhaps no Brexit at all,” he said.
Since losing her parliamentary majority in a disastrous snap election last year, May has faced endless internal plotting and rumors of a leadership challenge.
Many potential successors inside and outside her cabinet will address delegates this week, notably Johnson, who quit in July over May’s Brexit plan.
Charismatic and with a populist touch, Johnson is a favorite with the Conservative faithful and is expected to draw large crowds to his speech at a fringe event on Tuesday.
In his interview with the Sunday Times, he made a direct pitch for the leadership by setting out a slew of domestic policy ideas.
But many believe May’s rivals will wait and see what happens in the EU talks, with the House of Commons due to vote on the final Brexit deal, possibly in November or December.
May only has a slim working majority among the 650 MPs, making her vulnerable to even the smallest rebellion.