Johnson Calls for Clean Brexit in Another Op-Ed Aimed at May

(Bloomberg) -- Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson repeated his call for the U.K. to make a clean break from the European Union when it leaves the bloc, warning Prime Minister Theresa May that Britain won’t be able to take full advantage of the split unless it does.

Johnson wrote in the Telegraph -- a tactic he’s used before to put pressure on his boss -- to set out why May must resist growing calls for the U.K. to remain in the EU’s trading regime. Recently back from a trip to South America, Johnson set out what he termed the trade opportunities awaiting Britain outside of Europe.

“Now is the time to create deals with these dynamic countries,” he wrote. “But our Latin American partners are emphatic: if this is to work, we must come fully out of the EU customs union.”

The article was a response to a growing sense in Westminster and Brussels that the U.K. may end up staying in the EU’s trading regime for years after the divorce -- something Brexit backers like Johnson see as a betrayal of their cause. May runs the risk of being ousted if she can’t keep Brexit supporters happy.

May got her ministers to agree this month to a last-resort plan aimed at unblocking Brexit talks that could see the U.K. remain tied to EU trading rules as a temporary measure. It’s meant as a backup proposal to solve the thorny issue of the Irish border, but Brexit supporters fear it could turn into a prolonged extension of quasi-membership.

Trade Deals

If the U.K. stays in the EU’s trading regime, it can’t strike trade deals with other countries, and that goal has been a major part of the Brexit campaigners’ narrative. Businesses, however, overwhelmingly want the U.K to stay in the EU’s customs union to ease cross-border trade.

At the same time, lawmakers are trying to push May to keep closer ties to the bloc indefinitely, and will get a vote on it next month. There’s also the element of logistics: officials have warned that new post-Brexit customs infrastructure won’t be ready in time, making some kind of extension necessary.

The danger for May is that if she goes back on her promise to leave the customs union so that Britain can strike new trade deals around the world, she risks Cabinet resignations and even a leadership challenge.

Limited Appetite

It’s not clear, however, that there’s much appetite in Tory ranks for the upheaval of choosing a new leader.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the pro-Brexit lawmaker who leads a caucus large enough to trigger a contest, said Sunday he doesn’t want May’s job. He is the bookmakers’ favorite to replace her.

“I don’t wish to be prime minister, I’m very happy as a backbench minister in Parliament,” Rees-Mogg said on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show.” “Of course I wouldn’t challenge the prime minister. The prime minister has my full support.”

Rees-Mogg leads the European Research Group, a caucus of Conservatives who want maximum distance from the EU and are numerous enough to trigger a leadership challenge -- though not to win one.

Iain Duncan Smith, another Conservative Brexit supporter and former party leader, also said in an interview on Sky News that he doesn’t want a leadership election now, and that May is doing a good job.

Johnson is a potential rival to May, though he may not have enough backing among lawmakers. The Sun on Saturday said Tory grandees have a plan to replace May with Environment Secretary Michael Gove, another Brexit campaigner, when Brexit happens next March. The plan would be for Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson to then take over and lead the party into the next scheduled election in 2022.

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