Boris Johnson, U.K. foreign secretary, gestures while delivering a speech in London, U.K. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)  

What Boris Johnson’s Brexit Speech Tells Us About U.K. Politics

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson set out his personal vision for Brexit in a speech that nodded loyally to Theresa May’s leadership but contained enough mischief to challenge her authority.

During a typically colorful 45-minute performance in London, Johnson laid down his own red lines for the European Union trade negotiations, reinforcing pressure on the prime minister for a clean break.

He insisted “Theresa” was the right prime minister to lead Brexit talks while failing to deny that he could walk-out of May’s Cabinet if he doesn’t like the deal she gets. “We are all very lucky to serve,” he said. “I think the Prime Minister can do a great Brexit deal.”

Johnson’s comments matter because he’s locked in a high-stakes battle inside the Cabinet for the shape of the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU.

Here are the big takeaways:

1. Where Johnson is ready to dig in

The Foreign Secretary’s case for a clean break with the EU -- leaving its single market and customs union -- aligns with May’s vision, but the way he makes the point is more strident. “We would be mad to go through this process of extrication from the EU and not to take advantage of the economic freedoms it will bring,” he said.

Time is running out for Brexit negotiators to deliver a deal. Britain is due to leave the block in just 13 months’ time. Before then, the two sides must wrap up the withdrawal treaty, the terms of a grace period to cushion businesses, and the outline of a future trade accord.

2. The freedom to walk away

May is said to be planning for the U.K. to split away from EU rules immediately in areas such as financial services, agriculture and international trade. But British rules would remain closely aligned with the EU in other sectors, such as manufactured goods, under the blueprint being discussed.

Johnson accepted that makers of hair dryers or vacuum cleaners might benefit from staying close to EU rules, but rejected the idea that this could last forever. The U.K. must have the right to choose -- and to walk away if the EU’s rules change in future, he said.

3. Johnson’s not fighting on transition

The U.K. and the EU are now negotiating a transition period to help businesses adjust. May is fighting on two key issues: she wants restrictions on EU citizens who move to the U.K. during the transitional phase, and a guaranteed power to stop unwelcome new European laws applying in Britain.

Johnson seemed more relaxed about accepting the EU’s offer of a “status quo” deal: “Things will remain as they are” during the period, he said. His comments could give May the political cover at home to be flexible during the transition talks in Brussels.

4. Cabinet is split on immigration

Cutting immigration was a key issue in the referendum campaign in 2016 -- and it’s a sore subject for May. In her previous job as home secretary, she failed repeatedly to meet the government target to reduce net migration numbers to fewer than 100.000 a year.

Johnson takes a different view. He said he won’t play the game of putting numbers on migrants. Unlike May, he seemed open to allowing as many students as possible to come to study in the U.K. “We need talented people to come and make their lives in this country.”

Nigel Farage, who along with Johnson was the other poster boy for Brexit during the referendum campaign, interpreted the speech as follows: “Boris has no plans and, I suspect, no intention of cutting EU migration.”

5. May isn’t being a cheerleader for Brexit

The fact that Johnson gave this speech was as interesting as its content. He’s clearly stung by the criticism of his role campaigning to leave the EU and spent time defending himself and insisting Brexit must not be seen as “a plague of boils.”

His demand for an optimistic case to be made for Brexit is telling. By calling for it, he’s implying the prime minister isn’t delivering it -- a common complaint among Tories who say she lacks vision.

“It is the government’s duty to advocate and explain the mission on which we are now engaged,” Johnson said. He even supplied a new slogan: “It’s not about shutting ourselves off; it’s about going global.”

6. Is Johnson eyeing his own exit?

Johnson’s name is frequently linked to plots to oust the prime minister. He was ready to stand against her for the leadership of the Conservative party in 2016 but pulled out. On Wednesday he insisted May is the right leader but dodged the question when asked if he could could quit the Cabinet later this year.

At the same time, May is under pressure from members of her own Tory party who want to replace her. The plotters are angry that May failed to win a majority in last year’s election while some euroskeptics fear she won’t deliver a “clean” Brexit. Johnson -- who led the pro-Brexit referendum campaign -- is one of the potential candidates to take over.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.