Boris Johnson, the frontrunner to be Britain’s next prime minister, suggested Wednesday (17 July) that the EU would bear some responsibility if he took his country out of the bloc without a divorce deal.
The former London mayor has based his campaign to replace Theresa May on a promise to deliver Brexit as planned on October 31, with or without an agreement with Brussels.
In a final campaign event in London ahead of the announcement of the winner next week, Johnson said that he would seek to negotiate new exit terms with the European Union over the summer.
But he said that if the EU refused to be flexible or compromise on the existing withdrawal agreement, “if they won’t change a dot or a comma… then obviously we have no choice but to get ready to come out on different terms”.
EU leaders have repeatedly said they will not renegotiate the divorce text they struck with May last year, even though it has been rejected by British lawmakers three times.
But Johnson and his rival, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, insist they will try, notably by removing the controversial “backstop” plan to keep open the border with Ireland.
They have threatened to walk away if they fail – tough talk that caused the pound to fall Wednesday to its lowest level against the US dollar in more than two years.
May urges compromise
May is stepping down after failing to get her divorce deal through parliament, an effort that forced her to delay Brexit twice.
Her successor, chosen by around 160,000 members of the ruling Conservatives in a postal ballot, will be named party leader on July 23 and automatically become prime minister the following day.
Many Tory members have already voted, and opinion polls suggest an easy win for Johnson, a leader of the 2016 referendum campaign for Brexit.
“It’s in his blood, he’s got the dynamism to see it through,” said 70-year-old party member Ron Busby.
In a speech earlier, May deplored the trend towards “absolutism” in politics around the world, and urged her successor to compromise to get a Brexit deal.
“Whatever path we take must be sustainable for the long-term, so that delivering Brexit brings our country back together. That has to mean some kind of compromise,” she said.
Rules out Farage deal
Voter anger over the Brexit delays has seen a surge of support for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which backs “no deal”.
Asked on Wednesday if he would work with Farage, Johnson said: “I rule it out.”
A majority of MPs in the House of Commons oppose a no-deal Brexit, fearing the economic impact, but attempts to legislate to block it have failed.
Johnson declined to comment on reports that he might end the current parliamentary session so MPs would not be sitting in the run-up to October 31.
He insists there is nothing to fear from a “no deal” Brexit as long as Britain prepares.
However, he played down hopes of a quick trade deal with the United States, saying it was “not something that’s going to be done instantly”.
Johnson wants a “stand-still” arrangement with the EU that allows Britain to leave but maintain similar terms while it negotiates a new trade deal, including an alternative plan for the Irish border.
The current “backstop” is intended to keep open the frontier between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, but critics say it would keep Britain tied to EU regulations long after Brexit.
Johnson emphasised his opposition to the EU’s “damaging regulatory overkill” on Wednesday with a stunt involving a smoked kipper.
To the delight of the audience, he held aloft the plastic-wrapped fish, condemning the fact that it must now be sold with an ice pack.
He said it was produced on the Isle of Man, a self-governing British Crown Dependency which is outside the EU but must follow its rules to trade with the bloc.