The ex-Foreign Secretary used as electrifying resignation speech to urge the Prime Minister to lift the “fog of self doubt”, telling the Commons: “it’s not too late to save Brexit”.
Flanked by more than 50 Leave supporting Tories in a coordinated display of force, Mr Johnson branded Mrs May’s plan to stay tied to Brussels a “Brexit in name only” and accused her of “stealthy retreat.”
However on Wednesday night the feuding wings of the Tory party appeared to have called a truce as Westminster began to wind down for its long summer holiday.
Mrs May was given a warm send off from warring Conservatives and Mr Johnson stopped well short of calling for the PM to quit – in a boost for the embattled Premier.
Allies of Mr Johnson said he had prepared a much more damning version of the speech but was urged by supporters “not to go for the kill yet”.
But in a coded warning Mr Johnson delivered his 12 minute tirade from the same spot in the Commons that Sir Geoffrey Howe made the most famous resignation speech in British political history.
In 1990 that former Foreign Secretary set the wheels in motion for the ousting of Margaret Thatcher with a withering speech.
Instead Mr Johnson used his own speech to urge the PM to stick to her original hardline Lancaster House Brexit plan, saying “a fog of self-doubt has descended” since Mrs May set them out two years ago.
He said her Chequers plan would leave the UK in a state of “vassalage” and in “miserable permanent limbo”.
And he said Downing Street had “dithered” and “burned through negotiating capital” since then.
He told MPs: “We have time in these negotiations.”
“We have changed tack once and we can change again.
“The problem is not that we have failed to make the case for a free trade agreement of the kind spelt out at Lancaster House. We haven’t even tried.
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He says a “fog of self-doubt” engulfed the Government’s Brexit negotiation. It has “dithered” and agreed a “miserable, permanent limbo” at Chequers.
It’s hard to argue. A Downing Street full of Remainers succumbed to every Brexit scare story and EU trick. It now sees its role as mere damage limitation.
But Boris also claims: “It is not too late to save Brexit. We have changed tack and we can change again.”
If the ex-Foreign Secretary has a tougher plan that can win over a Commons majority and the EU we’re anxious to hear it.
“We must try now because we will not get another chance to do it right.”
But in another warning signal that he was prepared to lead the charge against her, he said Mrs May must cease making “the fatal mistake of underestimating the intelligence of the public” by claiming her controversial White Paper would not hinder trade deals.
He also used his speech to take aim at Brexit ally turned rival Michael Gove, who has backed Mrs May’s plan as he things its flaws can be fixed after Britain has quit the EU in 2019.
Mr Johnson hit out: “We will not have another chance to get this right. It is absolute nonsense to imagine – as I fear some of my colleagues do – that we can somehow afford to make a botched Treaty now, and then break and reset the bone later on.”
“We have seen even in these talks how the supposedly provisional becomes eternal.”
Earlier in the day Mr Gove had told MPs only “purists” would insist there were not benefits from Mrs May plan.
But the Environment Secretary did admit: “In a perfect world I would like the UK to have a slightly higher degree of autonomy than that envisaged in the Chequers approach.”
On Wednesday night Brexit fans heaped praise on Mr Johnson’s speech, with leadership rival Jacob Rees-Mogg described it as “the speech of a statesman.”
Ben Bradley, who quit as a Tory vice-chairman over the Chequers plan, said: “Agree with Boris Johnson that we need to make the case for the kind of relationship the PM laid out to us all last year at Lancaster House, which sadly never seems to have been made to the EU. Still time…”
And Nigel Farage added: “A very well delivered speech from Boris but it is hopeless to expect Mrs May to deliver on any of it.”
But a senior Tory mocked had earlier mocked Mr Johnson at PMQs, telling the Commons Mrs May “should be commended for her dealing with a giant ego, somebody who believes that truth is fake news and I’m not referring to Boris Johnson I am of course referring to President Trump.”
Mrs May later told reporters she had not seen Mr Johnson’s speech, and asked if she would catch up later slapped him down by saying “I’ll be doing my Red Box.”
Mr Johnson gave up the lengthy task of reviewing papers late into the evening when he walked out of the Foreign Office last week.
Later the Prime Minister was given a rousing end of term send off from the powerful 1922 Committee of back bench MPs.
And in move that left MPs stunned one Tory rising star who had written in demanding a change of leader dramatically told the PM he had withdrawn his note at their private meeting.
Simon Clarke said “I told the PM I made the wrong decision. It’s the grown up thing to do to give her a chance.
“We’ve stared into the abyss in the last few days. It has brought the Conservative Party to breaking point quite frankly.
“I don’t want to go into the summer feeling that the Conservative Party is at war with itself. It’s the wrong place to be.”
Mr Clarke is believed to have submitted his ‘no confidence’ letter 10 days ago.
But Tory Party chief Brandon Lewis then cancelled a fundraising visit to his Middlesbrough South constituency – scheduled for this week.
A sources said he had come under “huge pressure” from party chiefs who threatened to cut off funding to his marginal seat after he publicly attacked the PM’s deal.
Even the PM’s biggest backbench critic, ardent Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, declared her reception at the 1922 Committee was “very nice and supportive, as you’d expect”.
He added: “It is a united party”.
But Mrs May faces a tricky return to the Commons in the Autumn, with former Brexit minister Steve Baker suggesting the number of Tory MPs willing to vote down a deal which is “too soft” is substantially more than 40.
The Conservative big beast also said the “establishment, the governing class of the country, does not believe in Brexit” but is trying to “deliver something as close as possible to the EU”.
He told MPs Mrs May would not be able to get her controversial Brexit plan through the Commons.
And earlier in the day some pro-EU Tories called on the PM to reach out to Labour to form a “Government of national unity” made up of “sensible, pragmatic” MPs from across the House of Commons divide.
Former business minister Anna Soubry claimed the emergency move was the only way to bypass Tory hard Brexiteers to get Mrs May’s soft Brexit plan through the log-jammed parliament.
Ms Soubry said: “I have no doubt Jacob Rees-Mogg is running the country – not Theresa May”.
But her proposal was swiftly dismissed by Downing Street.
The PM’s spokesman said: “We have a Conservative government that is delivering on behalf of the British people”.
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