Boris Johnson, U.K. foreign secretary, speaks during an event hosted by the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia.(Photographer: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg)

Johnson Says U.K. Will Pay as Brexit-Backers Fall Into Line

(Bloomberg) -- Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson softened his Brexit stance by acknowledging Britain will have to pay to depart the European Union, joining fellow Leave campaigners in making concessions aimed at guaranteeing the divorce goes through.

A month after labeling a purported bill of 100 billion euros ($120 billion) as "extortionate" and telling EU officials they could "go whistle," Johnson on Friday said on BBC radio that "of course we will meet our obligations."

Johnson Says U.K. Will Pay as Brexit-Backers Fall Into Line

That brought him into line with what Prime Minister Theresa May’s government stated in writing in July. In another significant climbdown, the face of the Leave campaign accepted the idea of a multi-year interim period after Britain departs the EU as U.K. negotiators try to pivot the talks to trade.

His comments come before the third round of Brexit talks kicks off in Brussels on Monday. While the U.K. presented a series of papers outlining its position ahead of the talks, a senior EU official on Friday downplayed the chance of any major progress next week in key areas such as the bill.

The official said that a lack of substance on the part of the U.K., rather than a shortage of time, was the biggest risk in the negotiations.

Johnson’s intervention marked the end of a period of rare silence from him on Brexit. He echoed many fellow politicians who also pushed to leave in last year’s referendum and who now appear to accept that a hardline approach would jeopardize their goal.

There is "an increasing coming together of the Cabinet and of the Conservative Party," Rupert Harrison, a former government official and now a portfolio manager at BlackRock Inc., told Bloomberg Television.

Deciding how much Britain should pay as it leaves the EU is one of the crucial obstacles to advancing talks. May’s government this week gave ground on the previous promise to escape the jurisdiction of the EU Court of Justice. But on the question of the financial settlement, it’s been tight-lipped.

Bargaining Chip

One person familiar with the British position said that refusing to get drawn into the matter was a deliberate strategy, setting up the possibility that May will settle the issue at a summit with other leaders in October. Adding to the tension, Brexit Secretary David Davis is preparing to accuse the EU team of being stubborn and unreasonable and may also refuse to participate in a press conference, The Sun reported on Friday.

Analysts estimate the EU wants the U.K. to pay a gross bill of as much as 100 billion euros, based mainly on the country’s previous commitments to the bloc’s central budget. While the EU isn’t demanding the U.K. signs up to a specific amount at this stage, it does want it to agree soon on a methodology for calculating the final figure.

Britain believes the payment could be determined partly by the scope of future access it gets to EU markets. The concept of a bill is a politically tricky one for supporters of Brexit. Johnson campaigned to leave the EU from a bus plastered with slogans saying the U.K. should stop sending money to Brussels. In October he declared Britain’s approach to the Brexit negotiations was "having our cake and eating it."

The Kingmaker

The foreign secretary’s decision to cave comes after what one government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said was a Treasury-led campaign to spell out the technical realities of Brexit to the Conservative Party.

That, they said, led to an acceptance that the government needs the transition period it is now calling for to sort out details. "What business would want us to achieve is speed and efficiency," Johnson said.

This is only part of the explanation for why these Tory hardliners are supporting May’s overtures to Brussels. According to Anand Menon, director of King’s College London’s Brexit research group, they’re playing along because in the grand scheme of things they’re getting what they want. Her decision of Wednesday to say EU law could enjoy some sway in Britain after Brexit received backing from several pro-Brexit lawmakers.

“We underestimate the extent to which the goal posts have moved since the referendum,” Menon said. “We’re leaving the single market and the customs union and the jurisdiction of the ECJ. If you count off what the Brexiters want, they’ve got the vast majority of it.”

That pragmatism is helped by May’s decision to appoint many of their number to government jobs. Steve Baker and Dominic Raab, two of the leading pro-Brexit figures on the Tory backbenches, are now ministers in the Brexit and Justice departments. They are sufficiently trusted to allow them to reassure wary colleagues that the government isn’t selling out.

May is also helped by her own weakness.

The shock election result, which saw her lose seats when she expected to gain dozens, had raised in Tory minds the specter of a Labour government under its leader Jeremy Corbyn, an idea that four months ago they thought laughable. That could put their cherished Brexit plans in real danger so there is little incentive to risk the collapse of May and risk a new vote.

Johnson’s summer of silence removed a figure of influence for those most passionate about Brexit and led to speculation he was working out what was the best position to take for his own political future.

At the same time, the former Mayor of London’s standing has declined with a survey this month showing support within his party for him as a future leader had dropped 10 percentage points to 9 percent.