Boris Johnson hardens Brexit rhetoric as opponents launch campaigns

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Published: June 10, 2019 7:28:07 AM

As his opponents fall away, Johnson’s pledge to leave the bloc with or without an agreement will be watched closely by markets that have in the past been spooked by the possibility of a no-deal divorce.

boris johnson, brexit deal, brexit, prime minister theresa may, british prime minister theresa may, Brexit talks, Britain, European Union, Michel Barnier, Stephen Barclay, Geoffrey Cox(Reuters)

Boris Johnson, the front-runner to succeed Theresa May as U.K. prime minister, hardened his rhetoric on Brexit and unveiled a tax-cut plan as the other leading candidates prepared to start their campaigns on Monday.

Johnson, who quit May’s cabinet last year over her deal with the European Union, said he would scrap the Irish border backstop, withhold 39 billion pounds ($50 billion) owed to the bloc until an agreement is reached and leave on Oct. 31 — even if it means doing so without a deal.

The pledges won the former foreign secretary the support of leading Brexiteers and his campaign was boosted further when the candidacy of Environment Secretary Michael Gove, like Johnson a leading figure in the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, was overwhelmed by revelations over his use of cocaine.

While Gove pleaded on TV for a chance to prove himself, Johnson, who set out his ideas in an interview in the Sunday Times, was enjoying the support of self-styled “Brexit hard man” Steve Baker, a key member of the anti-EU caucus of Tory MPs, and Priti Patel, another prominent pro-Brexit Tory.

“Yes, it was a crime, it was a mistake, I deeply regret it,” Gove told the BBC as he tried to switch attention from his past drug use to his plans to cut sales tax and renegotiate a deal with the EU. “People should never be defined by the worst decision that they make, but should be given a chance to redeem themselves and to change.”.

As his opponents fall away, Johnson’s pledge to leave the bloc with or without an agreement will be watched closely by markets that have in the past been spooked by the possibility of a no-deal divorce. The Bank of England published a worst-case scenario in November that saw the economy shrinking by 8%, property prices plunging almost a third and the pound losing a quarter of its value under a chaotic no-deal split.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who will begin his own campaign on Monday, warned that any prime minister who tries to leave the EU without an agreement would find themselves forced to call a national vote.

“What an unwise prime minister will do in this situation is something that precipitates a general election,” Hunt told Sky News. “If you say October 31 is a deadline come what may, and then Parliament blocks no deal, the only way you can deliver that promise is to have an election.”

If a nationwide vote is held before the U.K. leaves the EU, the center-right vote would be split between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party and the opposition Labour Party would “come through the middle” to win, Hunt said.

Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, who Gove had hoped to persuade to back his bid, said late Sunday she will back Hunt — and included a dig at Johnson in her announcement.

“These are serious times and we need a respected statesman who Brussels will listen to, not more bluster,” Rudd said on Twitter.

For his part Johnson, who said withholding the 39 billion-pound financial settlement would be a “great solvent and a great lubricant” to force the EU to offer a better deal, used his weekly column in the Daily Telegraph to pledge tax cuts and support for green technologies.

“We should be cutting business taxes. We should be raising thresholds of income tax — so that we help the huge numbers that have been captured in the higher rate by fiscal drag,” Johnson wrote. “We can go for much greater economic growth — and still be the cleanest, greenest society on Earth.”

The offer would cut income tax for 3 million people by increasing the threshold for starting to pay at 40% to 80,000 pounds from 50,000 pounds, the Telegraph said. The pledge sought to take the leadership contest’s focus beyond Brexit in a move set to be reflected by other contenders as they announce their candidacies on Monday, according to extracts of speeches released by their offices.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock will pledge to put people at the center of politics and harness the technological revolution to make the next decade “the soaring twenties.” Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab will announce plans for the U.K. to take the lead in energy, environmental and climate policy. Gove will say he has “a passion for making people’s lives better” and is the right man for a time that “requires a serious leader.”
Sajid Javid, who won the endorsement of Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson at the weekend, will answer questions in the House of Commons on Monday in his role as home secretary. As the minister responsible for policing, he is almost certain to be asked about cocaine use.

He refused to comment directly about Gove’s disclosure on Sunday, but criticized drug use among people who, like the environment secretary, talk about their concern for the planet and its people.

“They have their organic food, they boast about buying Fair Trade, they talk about climate change and at the same time come Friday or Saturday night, they’re all doing Class A drugs,” Javid told Sky News. “Anyone who takes drugs should be thinking about how they are not just hurting themselves, but how they are destroying so many countless lives on the way.”

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