Boris Johnson: I won't quit over Theresa May's Brexit speech

Exclusive: In wide-ranging interview with the Guardian, foreign secretary says story about him quitting is a ‘great snore-athon’

Boris Johnson has insisted he will not be resigning from the cabinet over Brexit but said he hoped the prime minister would avoid hitching the UK too closely to the European Union after its departure.

In an interview with the Guardian in New York, the man who last year fronted the Vote Leave campaign said it was about time people heard what he had to say on Brexit and played down reports that he might quit this weekend.

“I am mystified by all this stuff,” Johnson said. “Not me, guv. I don’t know where it is coming from, honestly. It feels to me like an attempt to keep the great snore-athon story about my article running. I think that is what is going on.”

The foreign secretary was speaking on Tuesday after a day of chaos and contradiction over his political ambitions, during which reports suggested he could resign shortly after Theresa May gives a highly anticipated Brexit update speech in Florence this Friday.

That was swiftly contradicted by friends of Johnson who instead said he “could not live with” a version of Brexit in which the UK paid to have access to the single market on a permanent basis.

Johnson, speaking in a wide-ranging interview that touched on Syria and Britain’s relationship with Donald Trump, stressed that Britain needed a future relationship with the EU that “allows the UK to take advantage of the economic opportunities of Brexit”.

His remarks will be seen as a signal that he does not want May to commit to a close legal relationship with the EU similar to the arrangements adopted by Switzerland, which pays for access to the single market. Such an option would restrict UK room for manoeuvre over migration, common regulatory standards or the right to strike trade deals.

Johnson is attending the United Nations general assembly in New York, where he was due to meet May late on Tuesday to discuss the contents of her Florence speech.

Expressing his belief that her remarks would unite the Conservative party, Johnson said: “I am confident she will set out an exciting and positive vision for Brexit and it will be a speech around which everyone can unite.” His comments indicated that a possible clash over the future relationship had been averted for now.

On Saturday, Johnson published a 4,000-word article about Brexit in the Daily Telegraph that was widely interpreted as the first step in a pitch for the party leadership.

Boris Johnson meets Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and other international leaders at the UN general assembly in New York.
Boris Johnson meets Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and other international leaders at the UN general assembly in New York. Photograph: Alexander Shcherbak/Tass

The foreign secretary, who appears to have the backing of other pro-leave ministers, including Michael Gove, was thought to be unhappy about some of the wording in early drafts of the Florence speech.

However, on Tuesday he argued that he did not see his article in the context of a challenge to May’s authority. Instead he said it it was an answer to those who said he had not articulated a distinctive foreign policy in one of the most turbulent periods of postwar global politics.

He said: “It is perfectly true that I had thought ‘res ipsa loquitur’ [the matter speaks for itself], just get on and do the job, but I was conscious that people wanted me to contribute to the public debate.

“One after the other people wrote articles saying ‘where oh where, why cannot we hear from Johnson?’ I then obliged them.

“So I contributed a small article to the pages of the Telegraph, and now everyone who had previously accused me of saying too little are now saying I am saying rather too much.

“People have got to make up their minds. What do they want? What I want from my critics is some bloody consistency, the great inveterate jalopies.”

Such was the speculation about Johnson’s intentions, that at one point on Tuesday he was cornered by reporters in New York. He said that he has no intention of quitting, and appeared to accuse rivals of briefing against him.

He denied the cabinet was split over Brexit policy, saying: “We are a nest of singing birds.”

The foreign secretary also conceded in his interview that the UK should make contributions to the EU for access to the single market during the immediate post-Brexit transition period but not thereafter.

“I don’t think the sums should be too high, but it is obviously legitimate and right that we should pay our dues – we are a law-abiding country – during the period of membership. Where our lawyers say we are on the hook for stuff, then we are going to have to pay.

“But what I do not envisage is that we should pay into the EU just for access to the single market, or some such concept. It does not seem to be necessary. We do not get money for access to our markets.”

May is expected to use her speech in Florence to say that Britain will be willing to continue paying significant sums into the EU budget for the duration of a transition period of two years or more. But Downing Street sources last night dismissed as “speculation” reports that officials have drawn up a plan to make payments totalling €20bn to secure what the chancellor, Phillip Hammond, has called a “status quo” transition period.

The prime minister discussed the UK’s stance with European Council president Donald Tusk when the pair met in New York on Tuesday – and agreed that he would travel to London next week to discuss the content of her speech.

Johnson said in his interview that he did not want to reopen the fight about his claim that Brexit could bring £350m a week back under the UK’s control to be spent on the NHS, but said: “I was surprised by the intervention of the statistics authority” – referring to the UK Statistics Authority, whose chief, Sir David Norgrove, took Johnson to task over the issue over the weekend. Norgrove said of Johnson: “The tragic reality is that he got it wrong.”

The claim that Britain “sends the EU £350m a week” is wrong because:

  • The rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher is removed before anything is paid ​​to Brussels. In 2014, this meant Britain actually “sent” £276m a week to Brussels; in 2016, the figure was £252m.
  • Slightly less than half that sum – the money that Britain does send to the EU – either comes back to the UK to be spent mainly on agriculture, regional aid, research and community projects, or gets counted towards ​the country’s international aid target.

Regardless of how much the UK “saves” by leaving the EU, the claim that a future government would be able to spend it on the NHS is highly misleading because:

  • It assumes the government would choose to spend on the NHS the money it currently gets back from the EU (£115m a week in 2014), thus cutting f​unding for​ agriculture, regional development and research by that amount.
  • It assumes​ the UK economy will not be adversely affected by Brexit, which many economists doubt.

Johnson set out a vision of British foreign policy after Brexit in which the UK acts to prevent the unravelling of the settlement of the 1980s, including the unbundling of the Soviet Union and the creation of a string of successor states.

He said that was enough to make him want to stay in post for some time to come: “We need to protect that legacy,” he said. “I am loving this job. It is one of the greatest jobs in the world. It is a fantastic privilege.”

Describing his first year in office as a frenzy of activity, Johnson denied he felt bashed up by criticism.

Insisting he had a clear vision for the Foreign Office, he said the two key challenges were “a revanchist Russia and the Islamist terror originating in ungoverned spaces in the Middle East and north Africa that have hideous consequences in our streets”.

He said the most difficult and sensitive issue facing him was trying to improve relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Johnson defended Britain’s close relationship with Donald Trump, saying: “We have a duty in the UK government to have strong, dynamic, vibrant relations with our number one ally and the most powerful nation on Earth. But I am not the porte parole [spokesperson] of the US.”

He praised Trump’s activism in Syria but also unashamedly spelled out his differences with the US over the Iranian nuclear deal signed by Barack Obama in 2015, and the US’s decision to pull out of the UN climate change treaty agreed in Paris.

Johnson said: “We want them back in Paris, I am not saying it is going to happen overnight. There may be things we have to do, but we will work on them.”

Trump has threatened he would not certify Iranian compliance when the US state department is required to report on its implementation on 15 October. Johnson said: “We are continually urging the Americans not to tear it up. I have to tell you the odds are perhaps 50-50.”

On North Korea, he said “there is a last chance to sort this out” and denied a fatalistic policy of containment of a nuclear Pyongyang was now the only real option.

“No one in their right minds wants to see the US driven to use its military options – I do not see any good military options – and that is why all the pressure has to be on the Chinese to tighten the sanctions on oil.

“That is the jugular of the North Korean economy. China has been responding in a mature way, and they say if you go in too hard you will cause a catastrophe and mass migrations. Before that happens, it may be possible to bring Kim Jong-un to the table.”

On Syria he said: “We have one big card left to play in a pretty poor hand and that is the cash we can provide for the reconstruction of Syria.

“It is vital that we do not play that card prematurely, but instead when there is a serious political process that will culminate in elections in which not only the people in Syria, but the 12 million or so that have been expelled are able to vote.

“If we can get a political process that will lead to a transition away from [Bashar al-] Assad then we should play the reconstruction card.”

He said Assad should be entitled to stand in those elections so long as all Syrians are allowed to vote.

He admitted: “A year ago it still seemed possible to talk about the success of the moderate opposition in Syria, but we have to be realistic now about what has happened. Assad possesses most of useful Syria, but he has not won.”

Johnson also turned his fire on Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar state counsellor and Nobel peace prize winner, saying: “She is clearly not doing enough to express people’s legitimate outrage at the treatment of the Rohingya.

Asked if it amounted to ethnic cleansing, he said: “I think I would use the same formula as Antonio Guterres [the UN secretary general] if that’s what it looks like, and if it... if that’s what it corresponds to, then I’m afraid that people will draw their own conclusions.”

• This article was amended on 20 September 2017 to expand a quotation relating to Myanmar and ethnic cleansing.


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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