Outrage as Boris Johnson sets negotiation red lines for the government

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson answers a question during a joint press conference with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias (not pictured) following their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Athens, Greece, April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

The cabinet descended into a fiery argument this weekend over the government’s Brexit position – particularly on the transitional period – ahead of Theresa May’s big speech in Florence later this week.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson sparked outrage in the cabinet and among Conservative MPs when he released a 4,000 word article on Saturday, titled: “My vision for a bold, thriving Britain enabled by Brexit”, in which he set out a 10-point plan for how to make a success of Brexit.

The most attention-grabbing part of the article, however, was not the glorious optimism, but the red-lines it appeared to set for the government’s Brexit position, such as not paying to access the EU single market after Brexit on March 2019. This particularly angered Downing Street as the prime minister is preparing to announce, in her Florence speech, her intention to do exactly that – pay into the EU budget in return for single market access during the transitional period.

Johnson also repeated his referendum campaign claim that Brexit would free up £350m-a-week to be spent on the National Health Service, a claim Downing Street has steered clear from since the referendum.

The figure launched a row between the foreign secretary and the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, who sent a letter to the foreign secretary stating his “surprise and disappointment” that Mr. Johnson chose to “repeat the figure of £350 million per week, in connection with the amount that might be available for extra public spending when we leave the European Union”, adding that it was a “clear misuse of official statistics.”

The foreign secretary responded angrily, saying he “was surprised and disappointed by your [Norgrove’s] letter of today, since it was based on what appeared to be a wilful distortion of the text of my article.” A spokesman for the foreign secretary previously suggested that Sir Norgrove may have “amnesia.”

The red lines, public row with the country’s statistics watchdog, and timing of Johnson’s article – published on the day of the Parsons Green attack and just after the terror threat level was raised to severe – sparked outrage from the home secretary, who didn’t hold back any punches on the Andrew Marr show.

“I don’t want him [Boris] managing the Brexit process,” said Home Secretary Amber Rudd, before saying she was too busy dealing with the terrorist incident to read what Johnson’s had to say, in a clear jab at the timing of his article. Many of her cabinet colleagues see the article as a blatant leadership bid by the foreign secretary.

Despite Boris Johnson’s demands, Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to set out a proposal that’ll allow Britain to have single market access during an interim period in return for a continuation of large payments.

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