Boris Johnson used the first speech of the government’s “road to Brexit” series to try to simultaneously reach out to remainers while doubling down on his arguments in favour of a hard break from the EU.
It is not really possible to achieve both outcomes in a single speech, and the foreign secretary probably opted to focus more heavily on the second point.
There was the Valentine’s Day rhetoric for remainers from a Conservative MP clearly bruised by his depiction among liberal constituents, colleagues and even close relatives as the Vote Leave bogeyman.
And Johnson certainly set out to address key areas of remainer concern: from Britain’s geo-strategic status, to its internationalism, and then the economic risks of a departure from the single market and customs union.
But his inability to resist a dig at many of those same campaigners, whom he claimed were plotting a major betrayal, made it land some way short of a lovebomb.
The stronger theme that emerged, in a section of the speech based more in substance than soundbites, was around his demands for regulatory divergence as a result of Brexit.
Here, Johnson was less bridge builder and more poster boy of the leave side, warning that anything short of a full and clean break would be seen as a deception.
He was able to do this without ruffling too many feathers within the Conservative party, with a speech cleared late the night before by Downing Street that triggered no serious pushback even from Philip Hammond’s Treasury.
But the signalling within it will have certainly raised some Whitehall eyebrows, where there will be fears that it weakens the chance of the closest possible economic deal with the EU.
Johnson said it would be “intolerable, undemocratic” to continue to have to comply with Brussels-based directives, listing a number of particular areas in which he wanted immediate divergence.
He argued that Britain could cut VAT on domestic fuel, simplify planning, speed up public procurement, and develop new stem-cell technology and financial services instruments within a new regulatory framework.
All of which signals one thing to Labour, the Lib Dems, Tory remainers and other campaigners: deregulatory ambitions that they fear will damage Britain’s economic relationship with the EU.
And some are not convinced that EU rules prevent the type of things that Johnson is talking about. John Springford, deputy director of the Centre for European Reform, argued there was no evidence that British regulation was more effective than the EU’s. He pointed out that productivity was 20-25% lower in the UK than in France and Germany, and that the big technological developments were emerging from the US.
He said also that changing procurement rules did not fit with an internationalist vision, as set out by Johnson, and would not benefit British consumers.
Meanwhile, Springford (and housing groups) suggested that the limits to housebuilding in Britain were more linked to UK planning restrictions than EU-wide rules, such as the habitats directive, that Johnson appeared to be targeting in his speech. Moreover, environmentalists would be shocked to see Brexit pave the way for weaker protections for endangered and vulnerable species.
Johnson’s speech still leaves him largely at loggerheads with some of his own backbenchers.
Nicky Morgan, chair of the Treasury select committee, said she welcomed her colleague reaching out, although said the government should have done so in summer 2016. But she said that ultimately what people wanted was to know what Britain was asking for in the negotiations.
“It is 14 months to go and we still don’t know what standards businesses in my constituency will be complying with. I’m glad someone is optimistic but without the detail it is hard to plan,” she said, adding that financial services companies around the world wanted to comply with EU regulations for their own advantage.
And she argued that Johnson’s love bombing was still eclipsed by his drum banging for a “clean break and hard Brexit”. She said: “And he must know there is no majority in parliament for that.”.
Her comments were a reminder of the battles yet to come, and showed why Johnson was so determined to set out his arguments now – at the start of the government’s road to Brexit.
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