How Boris Johnson became a Brexit champion

Written by CNN Staff Paris, France

Just weeks before the UK’s general election was to take place, Boris Johnson, the country’s foreign secretary, revealed plans to leave the European Union without a deal.

Although he was mocked by a number of his Tory colleagues, analysts and pundits, Johnson kept his job by winning support from other cabinet members, pushing the party to a parliamentary majority — albeit with a significant deficit.

But now, the same crisis has emerged once again in the UK government, this time in the context of a deepening debate about how the UK should approach Brexit.

In recent weeks Johnson, Foreign Secretary but also a long-time member of Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet, has been involved in a series of rows about her plan to negotiate the British government’s divorce from the EU.

One of the key sticking points has been whether the UK will remain in a customs union, an arrangement in which all external countries abide by the rules of the customs union and pledge to pay the “social levy” on imported goods for redistribution by the EU.

During a session at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, May’s party conference week, Johnson railed against the proposed plan, arguing for the UK to leave the customs union.

“We should have clarity on the meaning of leaving the EU and don’t let this detail get lost in the mess of complicated words. The world is changing too fast for these words to be allowed to fail us,” Johnson said.

“The whole point of leaving the EU was that we would be better off outside the customs union and outside the single market,” he said, referring to the bloc’s economic regulation and liberal market framework.

Ministers reportedly angered

Johnson’s response to plans for a customs union divided his own party, especially as it was widely perceived to be against his position as a backbencher and a member of May’s cabinet.

According to The Telegraph newspaper, unnamed ministers in May’s government were angered by Johnson’s words, and did not view them as the actions of a true foreign secretary.

Not only was Johnson not one of the most senior cabinet members to express his views in the months prior to the general election, but he was also viewed as being overtly supportive of his role as a member of the upper echelons of the government.

The majority of senior figures from May’s Conservative party and cabinet voted for a ‘plan B’ on Brexit — a device that was meant to signal to EU negotiators that the UK wanted to retain benefits of membership.

Plan B is the term used to refer to the UK’s proposal to remain in the customs union while negotiations continued on its future relationship with the EU.

May has told ministers they will be required to back one of the two options of a free trade agreement or tariff-free arrangement with the EU.

Most of the senior figures in her government have reportedly voiced their support for the one-off customs deal proposal being touted by the UK government in recent weeks.

However, Johnson’s latest position appears to be at odds with May’s position, The Telegraph said.

“The prime minister is prepared to be flexible about the customs union, and Boris went further by claiming the British people would make a “glorious” difference to it,” the newspaper quoted sources as saying.

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