Britain’s pro-Brexit foreign minister, Boris Johnson, has told at least four European Union ambassadors that he personally favours free movement with the bloc, UK media reported yesterday (30 November).
In another contradictory chapter in the wake of the UK’s Brexit vote, Sky News reported on Johnson’s “incendiary” comments, as they imply the former London mayor and prominent Leave campaigner is saying one thing in public and the opposite in private.
Four ambassadors, under condition of anonymity, said that Johnson privately told them he supports freedom of movement, a main point of contention in the United Kingdom’s divorce from the EU.
“Boris Johnson has been openly telling us that he is personally in favour of free movement,” one diplomat was quoted as saying.
Britain’s strategy for the upcoming Brexit negotiations with the EU is to “have cake and eat it”, according to memo photographed outside the Department for Exiting the EU on Downing Street.
The view was backed by another EU ambassador: “(Johnson) told us he was personally in favour of it, but he said that Britain had been more affected by free movement of people than other EU member states.”
“He did say he was personally in favour of free movement, as it corresponds to his own beliefs. But he said it wasn’t government policy,” a third ambassador reportedly told the news outlet.
Another ambassador corroborated the comments and said Johnson was speaking at an ambassadors’ lunch, Sky News said.
A fifth ambassador interviewed said he did not hear Johnson make such comments, remarking the British foreign minister lacked credibility and claiming diplomats “don’t care what he says”.
Johnson was a prominent backer of the campaign to leave the EU and was appointed foreign minister after the 23 June referendum in which the UK voted in favour of Brexit.
The successful anti-EU campaign focused largely on stopping immigration from the other 27 member states.
The EU rebuffed a call from pro-Brexit British MPs for a quick deal on mutual residence rights for British and EU expatriates, telling them yesterday (29 November) it was up to their government to launch full-blown divorce talks.
Nick Clegg, former deputy prime minister, criticised Johnson for appearing to air a different opinion privately to that which his used on the pro-Brexit campaign trail.
“It does suggest that Boris Johnson… is just treating voters like fools. Let’s remember, Boris Johnson was the figurehead of the Brexit campaign,” Clegg told Sky News.
However, a foreign ministry source said Johnson’s comments to ambassadors did not differ to his public statements.
“The foreign secretary said what he has said many times before – he is pro-immigration but wants to take back control to limit numbers.
“He did not say he supported freedom of movement and challenges anyone to show proof that he ever said that,” the source told AFP.
Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will seek to curb migration from the continent during negotiations with Brussels, a two-year process she has promised to begin by the end of March.
But EU leaders have repeatedly warned the UK that it will not be able to retain access to the European single market while at the same restricting freedom of movement.
Johnson dismissed such a view in September, in comments which seem to stand at odds with those ambassadors said he made on free movement.
“They would have us believe that there is some automatic trade-off between what they call access to the single market and free movement. Complete baloney. Absolute baloney,” he said.
“The two things have nothing to do with each other. We should go for a jumbo free-trade deal and take back control of our immigration policy.”