Britain’s former foreign secretary Boris Johnson urged the government to demand a new deal with Brussels as he called on the country to unite in the face of its Brexit divisions.
In a speech that was widely seen as the start of a renewed leadership bid on Friday, Mr Johnson said Britain could only be a world beating economy under its own laws with a global portfolio of free trade deals.
The first of those could be a new pact with Brussels that replaced Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, which was rejected by parliament on Monday. Right-wing opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement has centred on the so-called backstop provision to ensure a free border in Ireland. “Now is the time for us to go back to Brussels and demand real change to that backstop,” he said. “And this time we must mean it.”
Mr Johnson, an arch supporter of the UK leaving the EU, appeared to appeal to blue collar workers in a speech at the headquarters of JCB, a billion-pound construction company owned by a pro-leave Conservative party peer.
He said the UK must use the Brexit process “to bring our nation together” and enact reforms that can prevent increased taxes and improve the country’s services.
Mr Johnson referenced the 2012 London Olympics as an example of “national optimism and self-confidence” where the UK could harness to move forward. He also criticised the influx of foreign citizens into the workplace in recent decades and said more must be done to harness domestic talents.
“Yes Brexit was about democracy . . . but that vote was also triggered by a feeling that in some way the people of this country have been drifting too far apart and in areas where we need to come together,” he said.
Prime minister Theresa May survived a no confidence vote on Wednesday after the humiliating defeat of her Brexit deal.
Mr Johnson, believed to have long harboured leadership ambitions, urged the government to go to Brussels and get a deal with the EU that worked. He said the current agreement, that was rejected by parliament on Tuesday, was a “pseudo Brexit” that didn’t deliver on the vote to leave the EU.
Mr Johnson said the country needed to stop the infighting, stand up and focus on demanding “real change” from Brexit. History showed it was only in the final days and weeks of negotiations that the EU really offered concessions.
“They have every incentive to listen to us. We must have the courage to ask and we must mean it this time.”
Mr Johnson also rubbished any idea of extending the UK’s leave date past March 29 and described the highly controversial Irish backstop, an insurance against a hard border on the island of Ireland, as a “trap.” He said the government “hadn’t even tried” to get rid of the backstop.
He also mentioned the “benefits of migration” but then said: “We know one of the ways big corporations have held wages down is that they have had access to unlimited pools of labour from other countries.”
“But I think there must be a balance and if an influx of labour is being used not only to prevent investment in capital equipment but also in the skills and prospects of young people then we need to think carefully about how we control immigration,” he will say.
The long-time Eurosceptic left his role as foreign minister in the Summer over his unhappiness with the proposed Brexit deal.