Less than 24 hours after Boris Johnson walked into 10 Downing Street, some of his Brexiteer supporters were already worried he was going to betray them.
One senior member of the European Research Group, a caucus of Tory MPs pushing for a hard Brexit, said he is concerned the new prime minister is adopting a “lipstick on a pig strategy’’ – trying to bring back the Brexit deal his predecessor negotiated with European Union with cosmetic changes to get it through Parliament. Brexiteers hate the agreement, which they argue keeps the UK too closely aligned to the bloc.
Johnson has publicly ruled out that approach, and did so again on Thursday. He told the House of Commons – which rejected Theresa May’s deal three times – that he’d demand significant changes from Brussels. Specifically, he wants to remove the Irish backstop, the provision designed to keep the Irish border open after Brexit, setting him on a collision course with the EU and increasing the risk that Britain leaves without a deal on October 31.
The prime minister told French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in phone calls he wants the negotiation on the withdrawal agreement reopened and the backstop removed, according to his office. Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, suggested there’s little point to talks unless the EU accepts that position, though he stopped short of saying it is a precondition. The bloc has already rejected the demands.
Despite Johnson’s insistence that May’s deal is dead, at least one cabinet member privately advocates the “lipstick” tactic.
The first public sign of trouble for Johnson came when Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the ERG, refused a government position on Thursday evening. The prime minister had invited him to return to the Brexit department, which he quit last year in protest at May’s strategy.
“With regret, I have turned down a ministerial job,’’ Baker said on Twitter, noting the position risked repeating his “experience of powerlessness’’ after he realised the Brexit department had been sidelined by the prime minister. Though Baker said he has “total confidence’’ Johnson will deliver Brexit by October 31, he also signed off with a warning: “Disaster awaits otherwise.’’
Johnson’s first actions in office have been seen by many as signaling a plan to pursue a no-deal Brexit, possibly holding an election first. They point to his appointment of hardline Brexit supporters Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Jacob Rees-Mogg to top jobs. Dominic Cummings, mastermind of the 2016 campaign to get Britain out of the EU, will help run his office.
Those who fear a no-deal departure argue that to leave the EU without any agreements risks economic damage, driving away investment, and short-term shortages of critical supplies in the UK.
It’s also a potentially painful outcome for Ireland.
The prime minister’s comments so far on Brexit have been “unhelpful,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Friday. “He seems to have made a deliberate decision to set Britain on a collision course with the EU and Ireland in relation to the Brexit negotiations. Only he can answer the question as to why he is doing that.”
But those in the ERG with doubts about Johnson interpret developments differently. Raab and Rees-Mogg, they note, did vote for May’s deal in the end. They say that Patel – who refused to back it – might still prefer to compromise rather than resign from her prestigious home secretary post. As for Cummings, he marginalized ERG members from the 2016 Brexit campaign and has regularly criticised their arguments.
Later Thursday, another ERG member, Mark Francois, fired a warning shot. “If there were any attempt to revive the withdrawal agreement, even without the backstop, the ERG would vote against it,” he told the BBC’s Newsnight.
At the top of Baker’s Twitter feed on Friday morning was a four-week-old post from Johnson’s leadership campaign, stating that “the current Withdrawal Agreement is dead.” Baker and his colleagues are determined to hold Johnson to it.
-With assistance from Dara Doyle.