By Andrew Atkinson, September 10, 2018
Brexit champion sparks Tory fury with ‘suicide vest’ comment.
Pitch for the leadership comes at key time in Brexit talks.
Boris Johnson has struck again.
The former foreign secretary cemented his reputation as the most divisive of British political figures with an attack on Theresa May in which he compared her approach to Brexit to strapping on a suicide vest and handing the detonator to Brussels. Commonly known by his first name, Boris is not backing down.
His barely disguised appeal to succeed her as prime minister triggered an immediate backlash from senior Tories — with Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan calling the remarks “one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics.” He followed up with a warning not to raise taxes.
Though the language deployed in his latest attack was less inflammatory, his choice of topic left little doubt he wanted to inflict damage on May, who has promised more money for the ailing National Health Service but admitted it will mean a greater fiscal burden. How to pay for the extra spending — which was promised as part of the Leave campaign in 2016 — will be decided in the Autumn budget, the timing of which is awkwardly linked to Brexit.
“We must find the extra 20 billion pounds that the Chancellor has rightly promised,” Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph, which has served as a weekly platform to belittle May since he resigned in July. “But I am afraid I am not convinced that the answer is immediately to turn to the hard-pressed taxpayer.”
The furor he’s stirred comes weeks before what is set to be a bruising Conservative Party conference in Birmingham and at a critical phase in the Brexit negotiations. The two sides are aiming for a divorce deal by mid-November and more positive noises have been emerging from the European Union of late.
Johnson, 54, has positioned himself as the standard-bearer of the Conservative wing demanding a clean break from the EU. He resigned in protest at the so-called Chequers plan, under which Britain would stay closely tied to EU trade rules after Brexit, and has since used his newspaper columns to accuse May of capitulating to EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
Speculation is rife that euroskeptics are gathering the signatures needed to trigger a vote of no-confidence in May. The number required to challenge her is 48 Conservative lawmakers, though to win the vote her opponents would need to mobilize 158, around half the parliamentary party.
The nightmare scenario for both sides — and for financial markets — is that May fails to get any Brexit deal through Parliament, precipitating a crisis just months before Britain leaves the EU on March 29.