Boris Johnson’s leadership hopes look dashed as Tory MPs took turns laying into his big speech on Theresa May’s Brexit plans on Tuesday night.
The ex-foreign secretary cut an isolated figure in the Commons as he sought to drum up Brexiteer support by tearing apart the prime minister’s unpopular withdrawal plans.
Johnson called May’s deal - which will face a crunch Commons vote on Tuesday after five days of debate - “a national humiliation” and claimed it had united leavers and remainers in opposition.
But it was MPs from his own party, whose support the Vote Leave talisman will need for any serious bid to topple the PM, who banded together to criticise him.
During Johnson’s relatively short speech, there were nine interventions from Conservatives, while SNP MPs chipped in twice and Labour just once.
Johnson claimed the EU had “no incentive to take their foot off our neck”, adding “in Brussels they think have got us beat” over May’s controversial Northern Ireland border backstop plan.
He also said the country should aim for a Canada-style free trade deal and prepare seriously for no-deal. But few on the Tory benches appeared to support his strategy, despite many publicly admitting they will join Labour in voting down the deal.
The most stinging criticism came from the veteran Tory remainer and May loyalist Sir Roger Gale, who told Johnson: ”He appears to be one of those who prefers a grievance to the solution. The [PM] has come up with a solution. What’s his big idea?”
Johnson continued: “The worst of it is that we haven’t even tried properly to leave or shown any interest in having a different future”, after which one Tory MP could be heard to shout “you signed Chequers”, referring to an agreement ministers backed just before Johnson resigned as foreign secretary.
Another Tory MP, Vicky Ford, struck a similar note over the backstop criticism, telling Johnson: “I have to say to my greatly respected colleague that I think he is promoting ‘project fear’, because what is his option?”
At one point, demands to intervene reached such density that Speaker John Bercow appealed for calm and warned MPs “Mr Johnson is not currently giving way”.
Johnson said May should take a tougher stance with the EU and refuse to pay the £39bn divorce bill.
Father of the House Ken Clarke, who has also said he would back May’s deal, said this would not be taken seriously in Europe.
Former business minister Anna Soubry, meanwhile, accused Johsnon of angling for a no-deal Brexit.
She asked him to tell MPs “how his cunning plan which ends up with no deal will secure the 485,000 jobs which rely on the automotive sector” and claimed he only learned about the industry’s “just in time” supply chain operations six months ago.
After almost 30 minutes battling interventions, Johnson concluded: “The people of this country voted for freedom, they voted for independence and for a better Britain and for a country where politicians actually listen to what they have to say.
“If we try to cheat them, as I fear that we are, they will never forgive us.”
Some thought Johnson’s pasting was a co-ordinated attempt by the government to neutralise him.
But others noted that not one Brexiteer rose to cheer Johnson on.
Sympathy among opposition MPs, who will reject May’s deal, was also thin on the ground.
The SNP’s Brexit spokesman Stephen Gethins told Johnson: “[He] talks about an ideal solution. [He] was a senior member of Vote Leave, he was foreign secretary for two years.
“We are in this mess because of him. Will he take no responsibility?”
Opening the five days of debate on her Brexit deal, May had earlier appealed to MPs to get behind her plan.
Saying the Brexit debate had been “corrosive to our politics”, she said: “What I believe is important is that we respect the views of those who voted Leave and deliver Brexit, but we also recognise that we do need to protect the trading relationship and ensure that we protect the jobs that rely on that trading relationship.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, described the Withdrawal Agreement as a “leap in the dark” which did little to clarify what a future UK-EU trading relationship would look like.
He said: “This Government is not taking back control, it is losing control.”
“We are over barrel, either paying whatever is demanded or negotiating away fishing rights, who knows what else? This is a terrible failure of negotiation by this Government,” he added.