Boris Johnson has insisted that Britain will still claw back £350m a week after leaving the EU, with much of that money preferably being spent on the NHS, as he warned critics of Brexit against treating 17.4 million voters as fools.
The foreign secretary repeated the controversial claim of the Vote Leave campaign in a 4,000-word article for the Daily Telegraph, in which he said that exiting the EU could be a catalyst for reforming the country’s tax system.
Johnson also accused Jeremy Corbyn of “chickening out” over the issue, citing Labour’s push to stay in the single market and within a customs union for a temporary period The Guardian's Brexit Means Is Britain expecting the impossible? Brexit Means... podcast
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“He would make a complete mockery of Brexit and turn an opportunity into a national humiliation,” he said, hitting out at other remainers for “woefully underestimating this country”.
Johnson’s sudden intervention in the Brexit debate, after months of holding back on the issue, will be seen by many across the Conservative party as a sign that he still harbours leadership ambitions.
His focus on the £350m claim, which has been rounded on by critics who point out that it has been questioned by the UK Statistics Authority and Institute for Fiscal Studies, could however be a divisive move.
Many remain supporters have said that the pledge, plastered on the side of the Vote Leave campaign bus, was dishonest because it represented a gross, and therefore inflated, figure and would be affected by the economic impact of Brexit.
There is also debate about outstanding payments to the EU budget.
Johnson, however, said it would still be forthcoming in the future: “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week.
“It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS, provided we use that cash injection to modernise and make the most of new technology.”
During the campaign Johnson was accused by remainers of telling “whoppers” over of the promise. Even prominent leave campaigners, including the Brexit secretary, David Davis, and the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, have distanced themselves from the figure. The government itself has made no move to promise such a financial injection for the health service as a result of Brexit.
Johnson argued in his article that Britain should not continue to make payments to the EU after Brexit and claimed that staying in the single market or customs union would in effect betray the referendum vote.
He said Britain would “keep environmental and social protections that are fair and wise”, but get rid of other EU regulations that, he claimed, cost between 4% and 7% of GDP.
He also called on the chancellor, Philip Hammond, to make changes to the fiscal system. “We should seize the opportunity of Brexit to reform our tax system,” he said, giving the example of cutting VAT on tampons.
He failed to mention a transition period, in a move that could be seen as laying down a cabinet dividing line between himself and Hammond. The chancellor has made clear that he thinks an implementation period should “look a lot like the status quo” to avoid a cliff edge for business.
Johnson was dismissive of the suggestion that Britain should pay for access to the single market during transition, saying: “We would not expect to pay for access to their markets any more than they would expect to pay for access to ours.”
Sources said the piece had been seen by Theresa May’s aides. The prime minister will travel to Florence next week to deliver a major speech on Brexit that has led to a small delay in the next stage of negotiations.
One Downing Street source said: “Boris’s views are well known. As you’ll see in the prime minister’s speech next week, the government is united in our determination to make the most of the opportunities for a successful future outside the EU.”
Johnson used his piece to back May’s vision of Brexit set out in her previous Lancaster House speech in which she insisted that Britain would be leaving the single market.
He said that critics were wrong to think that the UK might “bottle it”.
“I detect scepticism about whether we have the stamina, the guts, the persistence to pull it off. They think that the Brexit bill will get lost in a House of Commons crevasse or buried in some interminable Jarndyce and Jarndyce legal proceedings. They think that we will simply despair of finding the way out of the EU and sit down on the floor and cry – like some toddler lost in the maze at Hampton Court,” he wrote.
“Well, insofar as they doubt our resolve, I believe they are wrong; and I am here to tell you that this country will succeed in our new national enterprise, and will succeed mightily.”
The foreign secretary also attacked those who tried to prevent the leave vote, naming “the government, the BBC, Barack Obama, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the CBI [Confederation of British Industry], every major political party and much of the media”.
Labour said the article exposed the divisions in the PM’s top team. A spokesman for Corbyn said: “Boris Johnson has laid bare the conflicts at the heart of Theresa May’s government over Brexit and cut the ground from beneath the prime minister’s authority.
“In the process he has exposed the Tories’ real Brexit agenda – a race-to-the-bottom in regulation and corporate tax cuts to benefit the wealthy few at the expense of the rights of the rest of us.
“The foreign secretary even has the gall to dredge up the fantasy of £350m a week extra for the NHS. The prime minister must spell out now how this will be paid for, or stand condemned for once again trying to mislead the British public.”
Despite the claim that Downing Street was relaxed about the intervention critics said it was a damaging for the Conservative leader.
Commentators described it as a “warning shot” from Johnson because he had been sidelined in the Brexit debate so far.
The Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman, Tom Brake, said: “Boris Johnson should know that simply repeating a lie doesn’t make it true. Crashing out of the single market would severely damage our economy and mean less money for the NHS, not more.”
Labour’s Chuka Umunna said Johnson had already had a chance to vote in favour of delivering an extra £350m to the NHS in February. “He refused to do so. He promised to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in Britain, and nothing has happened. No one can trust a word he says,” Umunna said.
“The £350m a week promise was a fib, and there is absolutely no chance of it being delivered.” He called for a “period of silence” from the foreign secretary.