Boris Johnson is set to underline his status as the Government’s leading Brexiteer with a major speech on Valentine’s Day making the “liberal” case for leaving the EU, HuffPost UK has been told.
In a move that may be seen as him trying to ‘play Cupid’ between the different wings of the Tory party, the Foreign Secretary has pencilled in February 14 as the date for his latest intervention, party sources said.
Johnson had been due to make his speech on Monday, setting out his ‘red lines’ ahead of a crunch Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit this week, but rescheduled it amid fears the move would be seen as too provocative.
The latest date for the speech is next Wednesday and will be a ‘unifying’ address, appealing to both former Remain and Leave voters, a Whitehall source claimed.
Following weeks of in-fighting over the kind of Brexit Tory MPs and ministers want, Johnson will strive to unify the Tory party by making an upbeat case for an internationalist, open and tolerant UK after it leaves the EU in 2019.
Another source familiar with the plans said that Johnson would argue for a “liberal Brexit”. They said the speech would be sometime in the next fortnight but stressed that the no date had been finally agreed.
It is understood that Downing Street is in the process of approving the speech, but the very fact of Johnson making a major intervention is sure to spark fresh claims from his critics that he is putting down a marker for a future leadership bid.
Johnson suffered a backlash from Cabinet colleagues last month when he pre-briefed he wanted the Government to spend an extra £100m a week on the NHS.
“The speech is being pitched as a bid to unify the party,” one source said. “But the way things are, it could easily end up as the Valentine’s Day massacre [when Chicago mobsters murdered a rival gang in the 1920s].”
After No.10 ruled out any customs union with the EU, backbencher Anna Soubry said on Monday that she was ready to quit the Tories if it was ‘taken over’ by Brexiteers like Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
But allies of the Foreign Secretary expect his speech to actively decouple Brexit from the caricature of a “right-wing, little England” and instead praise the 2016 referendum as a “celebration of democracy”.
As the de facto ‘leader’ of the Vote Leave campaign, his stock has risen in recent months as MPs have seen him warning about the length of any transition, and the need for freedom to diverge from EU rules.
The Foreign Secretary declared last December that if the UK was forced to mirror EU rules it “would have gone from a member state to a vassal state” – a phrase since repeated by leading backbench Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg.
He also stressed that any EU deal would have to guarantee Britain’s right to diverge from European trade restrictions, telling the Sunday Times the UK “may in future wish to regulate it in a different way from the way that Brussels does.”
Johnson was forced to abandon a big speech on Brexit last September, but still triggered a row when he published a long article in the Daily Telegraph.
He then overshadowed the Tory conference by setting out his ‘red lines’ in the Sun, including a warning that a transition period should be “not a second more” than two years long.
May has yet to deliver her own ‘third speech’ on Brexit, after her Lancaster House and Florence speeches last year.
In a speech to the Munich Security Conference in Germany just days after Johnson’s address, she is expected to explicitly single out continuing defence and intelligence links with Europe post-Brexit. But she is not expected to stray into wider trade or transition negotiations.
The PM told reporters in China last week that “as and when I have more to say and to clarify, then I will do so”.
A former Foreign Office permanent secretary, Sir Simon Fraser, told the Commons Foreign Affairs committee on Tuesday that the Prime Minister’s ‘Global Britain’ rhetoric was “mushy thinking” and a “slogan”.
He also called Brexit a “strategic error” and said that “a lot of countries think, for the time being, that we have slightly lost the plot in terms of where we intend to go.”