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Boris Johnson expects Theresa May to be defeated in next Tuesday’s vote and in this interview lays out what he thinks should happen next.

Although the former Foreign Secretary does not call on her to stand down if she loses, his remarks are bound to be seen as his manifesto for the leadership race which would ensue were she to do so.

And the approach he advocates to Brexit is so completely at odds with hers that it is impossible to see how she could follow it.

Even if her proposed Withdrawal Deal is rejected by only a single vote, he wants it thrown out. Johnson claims that last December he was misled by the Prime Minister and Gavin Barwell, “in total bad faith”, that no real concessions were being made on the crucial question of the Northern Ireland backstop.

He also rules out throwing his weight behind the Norway option, saying that ‘the EEA just doesn’t work for us. The problem with it is that you’re even more of a rules taker than you are under this deal”.

Instead of either it or EEA membership, he wants a “generous, optimistic, energetic” renegotiation which has “a big free trade agreement at the heart of it it” and gets rid of the backstop.

Until these objectives have been attained, British negotiators must refuse to hand over £39 billion to Brussels, and must show they are not afraid of going to World Trade Organisation rules should that prove necessary:

“I don’t want to pretend to the public there would be no disruption at all. I don’t want to pretend there would be no challenges at all. But what people I think want to see is a bit of gumption from this country and a bit of willingness to tackle those problems, and a bit of leadership. And I think people are fed up of being told their country can’t do something and we’re all incapable of sorting out these logistical problems.”

Johnson accuses May and the Treasury of exploiting the issue of the Northern Ireland border in order to remain closely tied to the EU:

“The manacles have been co-forged, if you like, by us. We have decided to collaborate in our own incarceration….

“It’s unbelievable. It’s a kind of S&M approach to Government. What perversion is it where you want to be locked up in chains?”

The interview was carried out yesterday afternoon by Paul Goodman and Andrew Gimson, who began by reminding Johnson of a curious piece of unfinished business between himself and Conservative Campaign Headquarters.

ConHome: “It’s four months since CCHQ launched an inquiry into you following your remarks about the burka. What’s going on?”

Johnson: “I have no knowledge whatever of what’s going on.”

ConHome: “Have you not heard from them?”

Johnson: “No.”

ConHome: “They’ve not said anything at all?”

Johnson: “No. There was a lot of toing and froing in the initial phases. There’s been nothing for months.”

ConHome: “They accused you of breaking their code of conduct, set up this massive inquiry, then nothing?”

Johnson: “I think my best course on this particular issue, gentlemen, is to say I want to talk about other things. In a nutshell, what needs to happen now is we need to do two things. I think we need to throw out this deal.”

ConHome: “Should Theresa May pull the vote?”

Johnson: “That’s a matter for the Prime Minister. But I think it would be pretty odd to pull the vote now. I think there’s been a negotiation, that negotiation has concluded, the 27 plus one have agreed a treaty, we want to sign up to it and to get it through Parliament.

“I think it would be very, very odd now not to give Parliament its promised say on that treaty. So I hope that it will proceed to a vote. I believe that it will and I think that it will be voted down.

“It’s then that we need to do two things – I’m assuming that it’s voted down. I don’t want to anticipate the margin.”

ConHome: “You’re not anticipating some trick of the whips’ light, whereby you don’t get to vote on this motion at all –  there’s some cunning amendment by which the Government loses by less, which allows her to come back again?”

Johnson: “People want to be able to express their views and the views of their constituents on the Withdrawal Agreement. That’s the agreement that determines our future negotiations with Brussels and indeed probably determines our future constitution for many, many years to come.

“And I think for us not now to have a vote on that, the Government and Prime Minister having agreed it, at 27 plus one, would be a very, very serious mistake, and I think people would notice it and I think they would feel cheated.

“I also think by the way that to withdraw the vote now would be an admission of defeat – an admission that it was not something that had found favour with Parliament. I think the vote will go ahead, I think it will be defeated, I can’t prophesy the margin.

“And what needs to happen then is that we need to renegotiate, and renegotiate in a generous, optimistic, energetic way that goes back to some of the principles the Prime Minister outlined at Lancaster House, reinstates the idea of putting a big free trade agreement at the heart of it, gets rid of the Northern Irish backstop, which is a peculiarity and unnecessary – it is simply not true to say that you need a backstop in order to have a treaty – and remit all discussions about the solution of the Irish border question to the two-year period or the 18-month period at least that follows leaving on 29th March 2019.

“And on the Irish border question it’s very important to stress that this is a difficult question and obviously a sensitive question, but it is not an insuperable question. No one should minimise the issues, on the other hand nor should we exaggerate them.”

ConHome: “You didn’t say anywhere that there should be a hard border, did you?”

Johnson: “No, no, no. And both Michel Barnier and the Dublin Government and London and the Prime Minister have said there is no need for a hard border. As you know Jon Thompson, head of HMRC, has said the same.

“So that issue of how to get the maximum facilitation provisions in, so as to deliver frictionless trade and yet for the whole of the UK to come out of the Customs Union and out of the Single Market – that solution is eminently deliverable, but the time to deliver it and the time to elaborate those provisions is during the IP [Implementation Period], during the period up to the end of 2020.”

ConHome: “Just on the backstop, what did you agree to last December?”

Johnson: “Well last December what the Joint Report said was that failing all other solutions Northern Ireland should remain in alignment for goods and agrifoods. But it was nothing like as predatory upon Northern Ireland as the backstop, because it certainly didn’t say, for instance, that the EU could veto the UK’s exit from that arrangement.

“Indeed that arrangement, the Joint Report of 8th December, was presented to all Government ministers by Number Ten as being a mere form of words, this is just language that we need.”

ConHome: “Do you feel you were misled about that?”

Johnson: “Yes I do, and I think colleagues would say the same.”

ConHome: “The famous Michael Gove article in The Sunday Telegraph, in which it’s claimed, briefed by Downing Street, that the backstop wouldn’t really have any force.”

Johnson: “That’s right. No we were given to understand – and I remember going over to Number Ten, because my lawyers in the Foreign Office were extremely agitated about it, because contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of people in the Foreign Office who are very excited by the idea of Brexit and having an independent foreign policy and doing things differently, and they certainly were keen to vindicate the law as they saw it and to make sure we didn’t make any mistakes.

“And that provision in the 8th December Joint Report was something they were very concerned about. And I was very concerned about it and had a lot of argument about it and a lot of toing and froing.

“I think it was the evening of the 7th, it was right at the last moment, and I was holding out and holding out, and then I was summoned across to see the Prime Minister and her Chief of Staff.

“And we sat in the little office there, and you know, I made my points. The problem with that original agreement in the Joint Report was that it seemed to me to undermine our ability to go to no deal, or to walk away from the talks, because le cas échéant  [if need be] as they say in Brussels, if you can’t do this, then you do this.”

ConHome: “Did they tell you ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’?”

Johnson: “That is exactly what they said. So we were told this is entirely provisional, it’s a stop-gap, it’s a piece of lumber that is being used to prop up the building until a proper pillar could be constructed.”

ConHome: “By the way, no one thought at that point of bringing in the then Attorney General?”

Johnson: “We weren’t aware of any legal advice at all at that stage. The crucial thing to remember now is that it’s very convenient for those who are still in Government to say the real mistake was made back then.

“But actually that’s not true. Because it was perfectly open to the Government at that stage and beyond to say ‘No, no, no, we want a different approach’, and it was only on that basis that the thing could be changed.

“And I was told the priority was to go for options A and B. Option C, you’ll remember from the Joint Report, ‘No, no, no, we’ll never go for that – we’re just going to put that in so we can get on to the next phase – so the Prime Minister can get an agreement at the summit.’

“That was what it was. So that was done in total bad faith. The story of the next six months or so, in which I remained in office, is a story of trying to get things back on track.There was a great struggle going on at the centre of government between what I then called the Forces of Remain, and those that thought we really had to deliver on the verdict of the people, but also, and this is the crucial thing for Conservatives, deliver on our manifesto.

“And if you look at our manifesto in 2017, imperfect document though it is, or was, or turned out to be, insofar as it spoke of our membership of the EU and of Brexit, it was very clear that we were coming out of the Customs Union, we were coming out of the Single Market. It could not have been clearer.

“And what we were doing, and what I continue to do, by what I’m proposing, is to defend what every Tory was actually elected on.”

ConHome: “If she loses this vote, which some are saying she might well do by a very large margin…”

Johnson: “Well I wouldn’t want to exaggerate that. One would be enough.”

ConHome: “Even if it’s by one, can she really go off to Brussels as though nothing has happened, and shouldn’t she resign?”

Johnson: “No. The issue I want to focus on is what I think the Government should do irrespective of whatever she decides to do.”

ConHome: “Well it can’t exactly be irrespective of her. She’s got to agree with what the Government is doing. You’re suggesting she might resign?”

Johnson: “What she needs to do, or what the Government needs to do, is go back to Brussels and make it very clear that Parliament has not accepted the Withdrawal Agreement, and that it’s time for the backstop to come out, and time to negotiate a free trade agreement, to use the IP to do that.

“The idea of handing over £39 billion of taxpayers’ money now, in advance of the final deal, is very, very strange, and I think actually a complete mistake. And so I think what we need to do in the next phase is to say look, this cash could be available at the end of negotiations if you are supportive. Because at the moment they have not been supportive. They have been massively obstructive.

“This deal is a disaster for our country. It basically means the EU can blackmail us into any terms they like in the course of the negotiations on our future. Unless every single EU member state agrees to the terms of the new relationship, they can keep us in the backstop.

“And by being in the backstop, we are confined to the Customs Union, so we can’t do any free trade deals. It’s nonsense to say we can do free trade deals. The Government must stop saying this. You can’t set your own tariffs.

“Secondly, and perhaps even more destructively, we would be locked in regulatory alignment with the whole of the EU goods and agrifoods acquis, and environment, and social policy, unless we were willing to split up the Union, and split Northern Ireland away from Great Britain.”

ConHome: “Do you think we learned anything new from the Attorney’s legal advice on that?”

Johnson: “What it made clear is quite how pessimistic he was about our ability to leave unilaterally.

“People need to understand that there’s a reason why this backstop exists. It’s not just that it’s been invented in Brussels or by the Commission. The manacles have been co-forged, if you like, by us. We have decided to collaborate in our own incarceration. Like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, I don’t know if you remember, he has the chance to leave prison and he decides to stay.

“The whole Northern Ireland issue has been a very convenient device for the very large numbers of people in the Treasury and BEIS [Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy] and everywhere else who basically believe we should stay in the signature EU institutions.”

ConHome: “Just a moment ago, you veered between saying what ‘she’ and ‘the Government’ needs to do next week, which suggests you think she may not be there next week.”

Johnson: “No, I’m sure she will be there next week.”

ConHome: “You’ve not sent in a letter?”

Johnson: “You can ask me until you’re blue in the face but I’m not going to comment on epistolary communications of that nature.”

ConHome: “You’re not saying you haven’t?”

Johnson: “I’m not going to comment on my private correspondence, nor would you expect me to.”

ConHome: “Will you stand if there’s a vacancy?”

Johnson: “This is a question of changing the policy, and that’s what I have been working to do since I resigned in July, and I think, though I may be wrong, we’re on the verge of success. I really, really think that after months and months and months, people are really starting to get it.

“Talk to colleagues now, very, very good and reasonable people, Mark Harper, David Evennett, good, good colleagues of mine, Hugo Swire, the centre of gravity of the Conservative Party, can see that this thing doesn’t work.”

ConHome: “Jo Johnson.”

Johnson: “Jo Johnson and many others.”

ConHome: “We have to ask you the pining for the fjords question. Because it is being put around that this is a divided country, and what is required is a healer to come forward and march us all into the EEA and solve the problem and bring everyone together. And this person can be Boris Johnson.”

Johnson: “Well I think there are two traps in that brilliant question, which I’m going to try to steer round. The first is that the EEA just doesn’t work for us. The problem with it is that you’re even more of a rules taker than you are under this deal.”

ConHome: “It’s worse, in your view.”

Johnson: “Yes. Norway plus the backstop is worse. Why would you do that? It makes no sense at all.

“You could imagine a different arrangement than the current IP [Implementation Period]. The current IP is extremely humiliating. We are just straight vassals for the two years. You could imagine that we had a limited period of EEA-style existence.”

ConHome: “This is Norway to Canada?”

Johnson: “It doesn’t really work. You’d have to negotiate your way in, and then you’d have to negotiate your way out. I don’t think it’s really a runner.”

ConHome: “People like Nick Boles have been speaking in favour.”

Johnson: “I know, but they don’t really want to go forward to the Canada solution.”

ConHome: “The standard objection to this is that this is all sound and fury from Boris, because they’re not going to give us Canada unless Northern Ireland is severed off.”

Johnson: “They’re not going to give us anything until we are treated as sovereign and equal partners in this negotiation. And so far we’ve given no indication that we are willing to do the thing that is necessary for them to take us seriously.

“The second thing without which no negotiation can be successful is to do what we’ve totally failed to do over the last two and a half years, and that is to get ready to come out on WTO terms, and genuinely to be able to offer the EU a solution that they might not like, but will make them sit up and take notice.”

ConHome: “Isn’t it the fact that the Government has sabotaged its own option in this regard. The saying used to be that no deal is better than a bad deal. But the Chancellor was in front of a committee on Wednesday saying it’s all very difficult. They’ve had two years to prepare for this.”

Johnson: “It’s unbelievable. It’s a kind of S&M approach to Government. What perversion is it where you want to be locked up in chains?”

ConHome: “We’ll look it up.”

Johnson: “There is a general desire to prove that it’s impossible to get out. Good economic news was always greeted in the Treasury with remarkable distaste.”

ConHome: “Shouldn’t there be a Chilcot-type inquiry into the Government sabotaging its own policy and spending a massive amount…”

Johnson: “Before we go to inquiries let’s get this thing right. We’ve got a chance to do much, much better. And being prepared to go to WTO is absolutely crucial.

“All the anxieties about the insulin and car parts at Dover, that is a problem that is supposed to be occasioned by what the French might do.

“But you have to ask yourself, looking at what is happening now in France, and looking at the economic state of the Pas de Calais region, and the pressures on Macron, is he really going to tell the burghers of Calais that they are going to be deprived of UK traffic in the future?

“Because I tell you what we can do. There’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t start diverting stuff to Zeebrugge and Ostend and the Hook of Holland and indeed other ports.

“There could be real losers if the French Government decided to be difficult. And in my experience of watching public health scares, public logistical scares, millennium bug type things, is the longer business and people have to think about the implications of something, the more super-masticated the problems become, and magically you find that when you actually reach the great deadline, where the great disaster is supposed to happen, it mysteriously fails to happen.

“I don’t want to pretend to the public there would be no disruption at all. I don’t want to pretend there would be no challenges at all. But what people I think want to see is a bit of gumption from this country and a bit of willingness to tackle those problems, and a bit of leadership. And I think people are fed up of being told their country can’t do something and we’re all incapable of sorting out these logistical problems.”

ConHome: “What’s the Johnson family Christmas going to be like, when you’re sitting round the table with Jo, and your sister, and Stanley, all these Remainers.”

Johnson: “Glutinous harmony. The feast of reason and the flow of soul.”

ConHome: “Just a last thing. Hasn’t a symptom of the problem throughout been as follows: Boris Johnson stands for the leadership – Michael Gove withdraws his support; Chequers – Michael Gove comes in on the side of the Prime Minister, it’s apparently quite decisive or influential; Michael’s winding up for the Government on Tuesday, we hear. Isn’t he somewhere near the heart of this Government’s problems?”

Johnson: “That is a question you must really direct at my friend Michael. How can I put it tactfully? I do think that Dominic Raab took the right decision.”

348 comments for: Interview. As May’s defeat looms, Johnson sketches a manifesto: “People want to see a bit of gumption and a bit of leadership”

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