BELFAST (Reuters) – Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson on Saturday called for the government to appoint a minister to prepare for a “no-deal” British exit from the European Union in order to increase London’s leverage in talks with Brussels.
He also called for Prime Minister Theresa May to withhold much of Britain’s exit payment, to renegotiate its withdrawal deal and to dump the Northern Ireland backstop, while avoiding triggering a no-deal Brexit.
The withdrawal treaty’s ‘backstop’ provision could ultimately align Northern Ireland more closely with the EU than the rest of the United Kingdom if no other way can be found to avoid a hard border with EU member the Republic of Ireland.
The proposals received a rapturous reception from the audience at the annual conference of Northern Ireland’s pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party, but Johnson did not explain how he would secure EU acquiescence to the plan.
EU leaders have repeatedly said they are not willing to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, and observers have suggested Britain would have to make major concessions elsewhere for it to be changed.
May is due formally to agree the withdrawal deal with the EU’s remaining 27 members on Sunday.
“Unless we junk this backstop, we will find that Brussels has got us exactly where they want us – a satellite state,” Johnson told the crowd. Britain, he said, risked “economic and political humiliation.”
“We need a secretary of state for no-deal or WTO (World Trade Organisation) terms, with real powers across Whitehall (Britain’s civil service) to make things happen,” Johnson told the conference, winning a standing ovation.
“I do not believe that we will exit without a deal – that is totally unnecessary – but it is only responsible of government to make the proper preparations.”
Johnson, one of Prime Minister Theresa May’s fiercest critics since he quit her cabinet in July, has not formally called for her ouster.
But he is one of the leaders of a large group of Conservative members of parliament opposing May’s strategy and is regularly touted as a possible contender to replace her as Conservative Party leader should she fall over Brexit.
May does not currently have enough support in the British parliament to ratify the deal.
She has warned lawmakers they have a simple choice: back her deal or risk ushering in a no deal departure, a delay to Brexit or possibly no Brexit at all.
Speaking to the BBC, Johnson said he did not believe a no-deal Brexit was likely, but added: “I don’t think it will be nearly as bad as some people suggest.”
Johnson, who is known for his colourful language and at-time outlandish proposals, repeated a call for the construction of a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland, a project that several experts have dismissed as impractical.
“We need urgently to recover our confidence and our self belief, and to stop treating Brexit as if it were a plague of frogs or a murrain on our cattle or some adverse weather event that had to be managed,” he said.
(Reporting by Conor Humphries and Amanda Ferguson; editing by Jason Neely and Elisabeth O’Leary; Editing by Richard Balmforth)