Boris Johnson has used his first newspaper column of the new parliamentary term to attack Theresa May’s Chequers plan, saying it means the UK enters Brexit negotiations with a “white flag fluttering”. The declaration amounts to a significant escalation the former foreign secretary’s guerrilla campaign against the prime minister and her Chequers plan a day before the Commons returns and at a time when party disquiet over the direction of the divorce talks is mounting. Johnson wrote that “the reality is that in this negotiation the EU has so far taken every important trick.
The UK has agreed to hand over £40 billion of taxpayers’ money for two thirds of diddly squat”. Johnson added that by adopting the Chequers plan, which will see the UK adopt a common rule book for food and goods, “we have gone into battle with the white flag fluttering over our leading tank”. It will be “impossible for the UK to be more competitive, to innovate, to deviate, to initiate, and we are ruling out major free trade deals,” he added. The intervention comes after a summer in which the former minister, who resigned over the Chequers deal, had avoided touching on Brexit in his Daily Telegraph column – although he did unleash a storm of complaint by describing fully veiled Muslim women as looking like letter boxes and bank robbers. It will be seen as preparing the ground for a leadership challenge to May just as the Brexit negotiations reach their critical phase in the autumn, which is to culminate in any final deal agreed by the UK government being put to parliament for a vote. The Commons returns for just over a week on Tuesday, the first chance for Conservative MPs to compare notes about the state of grassroots feeling over Brexit. Many ordinary members, who have the right to chose between the final two candidates chosen by MPs, are unhappy with Chequers, fearing the plan amounts to a loss of sovereignty. Johnson called on May to return to the argument of her Lancaster House speech of January 2017. He said that on the current plan: “We will remain in the EU taxi; but this time locked in the boot, with absolutely no say on the destination. We won’t have taken back control – we will have lost control.” Another group of Tory MPs is also set on halting the Chequers plan.
The 20 backbench rebels, including former ministers Priti Patel and Iain Duncan Smith, have joined the StandUp4Brexit group, a grassroots campaign that has vowed to tear up the EU negotiations to date. Right wing Tories are expected to offer their own alternatives to the Chequers plan in the coming weeks, arguing that the UK should instead strike a free trade deal with the EU, in which the country would leave the single market and customs union. But it is not clear how far the EU will be willing to go along with anything that enhances the UK’s competitive position. On Sunday, David Davis, another former cabinet minister, criticised May for admitting she would have to make compromises to the EU beyond the Chequers agreement in order to achieve a Brexit deal.
The former Brexit secretary told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that he could not vote for what has been proposed because it was worse than staying in. Davis, who also resigned because he said he could not endorse the Chequers deal, was speaking after the prime minister had said in a column for a Sunday newspaper that she would “not be pushed into accepting compromises” on the Chequers plan that are “not in our national interest”. He said May’s words amounted to “an incredible open sesame”, arguing the problem with the UK position was that it was “not the last step” for the EU, and Brussels would not accept it. On the same programme, the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, indicated the government may have to make further concessions. He said the EU had to understand “this is a negotiation”, and added: “We have already set out what we think is a reasonable position for the UK to have in our future trading relationship with Europe. We are waiting for the EU to come back to us with their view.”