Boris Johnson has said voters want no more “political kerfuffle” about leadership challenges, and insisted Theresa May is still best placed to deliver Brexit.
On a visit to New Zealand, the foreign secretary was distracted by shouts of “Boris for PM” while at a ceremony in Wellington, though he pointed out there were also protesters who were “diametrically opposed” to the idea.
“What the British people want to see is a government that gets on with the job and they’ve got that with Theresa and we are going to deliver a great Brexit deal,” he said. “They see no need for any more political kerfuffle.”
When asked whether infighting could compromise progress in trade discussions, Johnson said any suggestion of discord in the Conservative party had “completely passed me by”.
“Let’s be clear, the election did not evolve entirely in the way the government had hoped or would have wanted,” he said. “But the Labour party did not win; they were 50 seats behind.”
Speaking at a press conference in Wellington on Tuesday, after talks with New Zealand’s prime minister, Bill English, and its foreign minister, Gerry Brownlee, Johnson said Britain was not “going to make life more difficult” for New Zealand citizens coming to work in Britain after Brexit.
“In any society you’ve got to manage it [immigration], and you’ve got to control it and people have got a democratic right that their government is in charge of the situation – that was what the whole Brexit thing was about,” he said.
“They just wanted to feel that the British government had a handle on it. That does not mean that we are in any way going to make life more difficult for New Zealanders – on the contrary. We love Kiwis coming to our country, even if it’s only for a short time and [they] go back again.”
Johnson, who departed for Australia shortly after the meeting, is on a trade offensive in Australasia, while his cabinet colleague Liam Fox has spent three days in the US setting up a working group to lay the groundwork for future trade negotiations.
“Brexit is not, was not, will not be about Britain turning away from the world,” Johnson said. “On the contrary, it is about us wanting to keep great relations with European friends and partners and do a great free trade deal with them, but it is also about rediscovering and intensifying friendships and partnerships around the world.”
Johnson said New Zealand would be “at or near the front of the queue” for free trade negotiations after Brexit. He said his grandmother had had a particular preference for Kiwi-produced Anchor butter.
The Labour MP Peter Kyle, a supporter of the Open Britain group which campaigns to keep the UK in the single market, said Johnson could not pretend that free trade with New Zealand was a suitable substitute for a good deal with the EU.
“Last year, the EU accounted for 44% of everything we sell; New Zealand accounted for just 0.2%,” he said. “It is delusional to think that deals with small countries can replace the huge hit to our economy leaving the EU market will cause.
“For a Brexit that really maximises trading opportunities and creates jobs, the government should focus on protecting trade with Europe and keeping us in the single market and customs union.”
This article was written by Jessica Elgot Political reporter, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 25th July 2017 13.54 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010