Former foreign secretary delivers provocative speech in Belfast in bid to woo Arlene Foster’s party
|The Guardian|AIWA! NO!|Boris Johnson warned on Saturday that Britain was “on the verge of making a historic mistake”, as Theresa May arrived in Brussels to sign a Brexit deal that cabinet ministers believe will soon be blocked by parliament.
The prime minister is expected to approve the deal on Sunday despite growing certainty among allies and critics alike that she has insufficient support among MPs. She also faces a threat from the DUP, the Northern Irish party propping up her government, which could pull the plug on its support unless there is a rethink of a deal that it has branded “pitiful and pathetic”.
On Saturday, as he sought to steel DUP resistance to the deal and to parry Downing Street’s attempt to woo the party’s 10 Westminster MPs, Johnson delivered a provocative address at the party’s conference in Belfast, filled with eclectic references ranging from bendy buses to Star Wars, Van Morrison, former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and the Titanic.
“If you read the withdrawal agreement, you can see that we are witnessing the birth of a new country called UK(NI) or Ukni,” the former foreign secretary said. “Ukni is no longer exclusively ruled by London or Stormont. Ukni is in large part to be ruled by Brussels.”
Insisting that another attempt should be made to draw up a deal, Johnson said the UK should withhold half of the £39bn divorce settlement with the EU until a free-trade agreement was agreed by the end of 2020. He also said that the so-called backstop, a measure intended to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, would cleave Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom.
“We need to junk the backstop,” he said. Johnson also repeated his call for a bridge to be built between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The criticism of May’s deal did not stop there. Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the DUP, called the deal “pitiful and pathetic”.
In her keynote address, DUP leader Arlene Foster said the prime minister was “genuine” in not wanting to harm the union. However, she reiterated the party’s opposition. “We could not support proposals that would open the possibility of divergence in either customs or regulatory measures between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” she said.
Opposition to the Brexit proposals is also building within May’s cabinet. The Observer understands that serving ministers are already planning to try again to demand changes to the deal once it is voted down by the Commons, in a vote expected next month.
Scores of Tory MPs are still vowing to vote against the deal, despite desperate attempts by No 10 to convince them that it is the best and only agreement Britain will be offered.Advertisement