Birmingham, United Kingdom, Oct 2 – Britain’s Boris Johnson will seek Tuesday to whip up opposition to Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan in a highly anticipated speech to their Conservative party that many will view as a pitch for her job.
Johnson quit May’s government in July over her proposal for close future trade ties with the EU, and has stepped up his opposition since then, while also setting out his own leadership credentials.
His speech on the sidelines of the party’s annual conference in Birmingham, central England, will lay bare the divisions in May’s party as she heads into final Brexit negotiations with the European Union.
She is already struggling to keep her so-called Chequers plan alive after EU leaders rejected it and demanded a rethink in time for a key summit later this month.
But May needs her Conservative MPs onside if she is going to get the final agreement through the House of Commons before Brexit day in March next year.
– ‘He’s a winner’ –
A mix of bumbling charm and sharp intellect, Johnson is a national figure in Britain, elected twice mayor of London and known to the public just as “Boris”.
In his own party, he is a particular favourite among eurosceptics for his boundless optimism about Britain’s future outside the EU.
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab admitted on Monday that the government’s plan was not perfect, telling delegates: “There have to be compromises.”
Yet Johnson and other Brexit supporters have already convinced many activists the proposal cannot work, and are pressing for a looser trading arrangement.
“He’s not a details guy, but he’s a guy who has vision. Do I know what Theresa May’s vision is? No,” said Ian Burgess, a delegate in his 60s from Somerset in western England.
“And he’s a winner. He won the mayoralty in London, a Labour city.”
But Johnson’s confrontational style — he condemned May’s plan as “deranged” and said she had strapped a “suicide vest around the British constitution” — has irritated many Conservative MPs who see him as a disruptive force.
Several former colleagues used the conference to make jokes at his expense, while finance minister Philip Hammond said his alternative Brexit plan was “fantasy”.
Hammond, who opposed Brexit during the 2016 referendum, said Johnson could not do “grown-up politics” and had “no grasp of detail” on complex subjects like leaving the EU.
Pro-European MP Anna Soubry told AFP: “I’d rather he just shut up.”
Even fellow eurosceptics have mocked him, with former Brexit minister David Davis — who describes Johnson as a “great mate” — saying many of his ideas “are good headlines but not necessarily good policies”.
Among the delegates, there is also unease about Johnson’s public disagreements with May.
Amandeep Garcha, a 21-year-old student activist from Derby, backs Johnson’s Brexit position, but said: “When you’re high up in the ranks, you should deal with these things privately.
“It’s not just about the party, it’s about (how we are seen in) the world.”
– Beyond Brexit –
Johnson set out his Brexit plan in a lengthy newspaper article last week, and his speech on Tuesday is expected to be a serious pitch for support.
He has made a career by playing the fool — famously getting stuck on a zipwire as mayor of London — but his easy-going manner risks becoming a liability when running for the top job.
“He had a kind of charisma that so few others do. But he is very divisive, that’s a problem,” said Mike Kay, 34, from Manchester in northwest England.
“A large section of the country thinks he is a clown.”
There is little appetite among delegates here for an immediate change of leadership.
But Johnson is likely looking beyond Brexit, when many believe May will be forced to step down — or perhaps if the Brexit deal fails to pass parliament, in which case she could also face a challenge.
Conservative MPs choose two leadership candidates, which are then put to a vote of party members.
“He is trying to position himself for the fight that will come,” said Robin Pettitt, a political expert at the University of Kingston.