Boris Johnson has savaged Theresa May’s Chequers plan as he made a direct pitch to the Tory faithful for his own domestic policy agenda based on traditional “one nation” Conservative values.
The former foreign secretary unleashed a fresh wave of leadership speculation after he blew into the Conservative party conference for just a few hours to rally the party membership behind his Brexit plans.
He ruled out backing a second referendum and urged the Tories to take the battle directly to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, rather than trying to ape his strategy.
In an explosive speech to a fringe meeting at the Conservative conference – watched by leading Brexiters including David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel – Johnson said the only winners from a Chequers-style Brexit would be the far right and far left of British politics.
“If we get it wrong, if we bottle Brexit now, believe me, the people of this country will find it hard to forgive,” he told the 1,500-strong audience. “If we get it wrong, if we proceed with this undemocratic solution, if we remain half in, half out, we will protract this toxic tedious business that is frankly so offputting to sensible middle-of-the-road people who want us to get on with their priorities.”
Johnson, who quit the cabinet in protest at Chequers, called on his fellow Brexiters to pile pressure on the prime minister to dump her plan and revert to her original Lancaster House proposals, even though it would mean ripping up everything agreed with Brussels so far.
“This is not pragmatic, it is not a compromise. It is dangerous and unstable – politically and economically,” he said. “This is not democracy. This is not what we voted for. This is an outrage. This is not taking back control: this is forfeiting control.
“I urge our friends in government to deliver what the people voted for, to back Theresa May in the best way possible, by softly, quietly, and sensibly backing her original plan.”
He rejected as “total fantasy” the idea that it would be possible to “bodge” Brexit now and then negotiate a better deal after leaving in March 2019.
He also suggested that Chequers would embolden those who wanted a second referendum, which he said would be “disastrous” for trust in British politics. “People would see that they would simply be being asked to vote again until they give the answer the remainers want,” he said.
Johnson was given a rapturous reception on a scale not seen so far inside the main hall. May later declared herself “cross” with her former cabinet colleague, accusing him of being ready to tear up her guarantee to Northern Ireland that there would be no customs border in the Irish Sea.
The prime minister said she did not watch Johnson’s address, preferring to talk to activists. But she told the BBC: “There are one or two things that Boris said that I’m cross about. He wants to tear up our guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland. We have a guarantee for the people of Northern Ireland and we are upholding that. Our Chequers plan does that. It is the only plan on the table at the moment that does.”
May said that “Boris always puts on a good show”, but noted he was “a key part” of the discussions at her country residence that ended with the plan being agreed in July.
The bulk of Johnson’s speech was devoted to setting out his alternative domestic policy vision, amid fears in the highest ranks of the Tory party that it has become so mired in Brexit that the electorate is no longer aware of what it stands for.
“If I have a function here today,” he told his audience, “it is to try, with all humility, to put some lead in the collective pencil, to stop what seems to me to be a ridiculous seeping away of our self-belief, and to invite you to feel realistic and justified confidence in what we can do.”
Johnson attempted to return to the political centre with a series of domestic policy proposals after recent remarks about Muslim women resembling letterboxes and Chequers being a “suicide vest” prompted accusations of Islamophobia.
His alternative prospectus for the Tory party included tackling the housing crisis, which he described as a “massive opportunity” for the party even though it has worsened during its eight years in power.
“If we rise to the challenge, if we get it right, it is an open goal, because this is one of those critical issues where … the facts of life do always turn out to be Conservative.”
He also set out his vision for a low-tax, pro-business economy and called for an increase in stop and search, dismissing a reduction in use of the policing tool – driven by the prime minister amid concerns about the impact on communities – as “politically correct nonsense”.
Johnson urged the Tory party to take its fight to Labour, which was widely regarded to have had a successful conference last week, saying: “Surely to goodness we can take this Tony Benn tribute act and wallop it for six.”
He added: “Not by imitating them, not by capering insincerely on Labour turf – we won’t get anywhere by metaphorically acquiring beards and string vests and allotments – but by systematically pointing out the damage they would do. Instead of aping Corbyn, we have to take our basic Conservative ideas and fit them to the problems of today.”
Johnson listed his achievements as mayor of London, a reminder to colleagues of his ability to win over a predominantly liberal electorate, and a retort to the chancellor, Philip Hammond, who had suggested his greatest success to date had been the “Boris bike” cycle-hire scheme.
He congratulated Hammond over his view that the former foreign secretary would never become prime minister. “It was the first Treasury forecast in a very long time that had a distinct ring of truth about it,” he said.
Even before his arrival in Birmingham, Johnson had overshadowed the event, first of all by attacking May’s Brexit plan as “deranged” and then by appearing to parody the prime minister’s infamous runs through fields of wheat.
Rumours of a potential leadership bid were bolstered when Tory and Vote Leave donors including the hedge fund billionaire Michael Hintze and the political strategist Mark Fullbrook, who is Lynton Crosby’s business partner in the UK, were spotted in the audience.
A series of senior Tory figures including the chancellor, the home secretary, Sajid Javid, and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, have been among those who have criticised Johnson over his constant attacks on May’s Brexit plans, as well as his attempts to overshadow the conference.