Sunday 21 January 2018

May slaps down Johnson over 'back-seat driving' on Brexit

Prime Minister Theresa May with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Photo: PA
Prime Minister Theresa May with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Photo: PA

Andrew Woodcock in Ottawa

A defiant Boris Johnson has insisted there can be no extended "transition" period after Britain leaves the EU, even as Theresa May slapped him down over his "back-seat driving" on Brexit.

The British prime minister insisted Brexit talks were being "driven from the front" after the foreign secretary's dramatic weekend intervention, setting out his vision for life outside the EU in a 4,000-word newspaper article.

Attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Mr Johnson denied accusations by furious colleagues that he was trying to act as a "back-seat driver" in the talks with Brussels before a keynote speech by Mrs May in Florence on Friday.

However, in an interview with BBC News, he again reiterated his demands the UK should not have to make "extortionate" payments to Brussels for continued access to EU markets and that any transitional arrangements should be strictly time-limited.

Mr Johnson also side-stepped a question on whether he would resign if he did not get his way, saying: "You are barking slightly up the wrong tree here."

The two now face an awkward reunion in New York tomorrow, when Mrs May flies in to join the United Nations following talks in Ottawa with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Speculation has been mounting she will use her Florence speech to offer to pay tens of billions of pounds to the EU during a two to three-year transition deal after the UK's formal exit in 2019 to break the deadlock in negotiations.

Speaking to reporters on board her flight to Canada, Mrs May said the cabinet was fully united behind her approach to the Brexit talks.

"This government is driven from the front and we are all going to the same destination, because we are all agreed," she said.

"We are all agreed as a government about the importance of ensuring the right deal for Britain, the right withdrawal agreement, but also the right deal on a special partnership between the EU and UK for the future."

She also notably failed to offer support to Mr Johnson with the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority after he revived the controversial claim that Brexit would release £350m (€395m) a week which could be spent on the NHS.

For his part, the foreign secretary said he accepted that Mrs May was in charge of the negotiations while playing down suggestions that he was at odds with key cabinet colleagues such as Chancellor Philip Hammond and Brexit Secretary David Davis.

He said that his article in 'The Daily Telegraph' had been intended as an "opening drum roll" to Mrs May's Florence speech.

"There is one driver in this car. It's Theresa. What I am trying to do is sketch out what I think is the incredible exciting landscape of the destination ahead," he said.

"Let's not try and find rows when there really aren't rows. I think it is a good thing to have a bit of an opening drum roll about what this country can do."

He made clear, however, that he stood by his arguments over the transition period.

"It is pretty important that it shouldn't be too long," he said.

"We certainly don't want to be paying in extortionate sums for access to the single market. They wouldn't pay for access to our market."

Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings, the former Vote Leave director seen as an ally of Mr Johnson, launched a blistering attack on Mr Davis's handling of the negotiations.

In a series of tweets, he said the decision to begin the Article 50 withdrawal process before the government was ready had been like "putting a gun in mouth and kaboom".

"The shambles now unfolding is a direct consequence of that historic unforgivable blunder," he wrote.

Irish Independent

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