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Parliament Ready to Support No-Deal Brexit, Johnson Says

Robert Hutton and Kitty Donaldson
Parliament Ready to Support No-Deal Brexit, Johnson Says

(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson said he believed the British Parliament would now support a no-deal Brexit, even as senior figures in his Conservative Party warned they had the numbers to stop him if he tried to push one through.

Johnson, a former foreign secretary, and the favorite to succeed Theresa May as prime minister, used a BBC interview to argue that the drubbings that both his Conservative Party and opposition Labour Party received in the European elections had left members of Parliament determined to get Brexit done.

“I think Parliament now understands that the British people want us to come out,” Johnson said. “And I think that MPs on both sides of the House also understand that they will face mortal retribution from the electorate unless we get on and do it.”

Johnson, who has been criticized for shunning media interviews and debates, will give another interview on Tuesday on LBC radio at 9:30 a.m. His rival Jeremy Hunt called him a coward on Monday for avoiding scrutiny.

Johnson said his Brexit strategy is to use the threat of no-deal to persuade the European Union to remove the controversial Irish border backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement that May negotiated. Crucial to that is convincing the EU, which has said it won’t move on either of these points, that Britain is serious about a no-deal.

Strategy Divide

Johnson’s problem is that many MPs believe a no-deal Brexit can be stopped. Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood told the BBC that he was certain those who oppose a no-deal Brexit had the numbers. “I think a dozen or so members of Parliament would be on our side, would be voting against supporting a no deal, and that would include ministers as well as backbenchers,” he said.

Speaking on BBC Radio on Tuesday, Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd said Ellwood’s estimate was “about right -- I think it’s slightly less than that.”

On Monday, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Ken Clarke went further, saying he’d be willing to vote against the government in a confidence vote if that was necessary to stop a no-deal Brexit.

And while Johnson is right that the EU elections are leading Labour to shift its position, it might not be in the direction that he’s counting on. Earlier Monday, the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, signaled another move toward a full commitment to a second referendum, twice telling May it was the best course.

Although a handful of Labour MPs have been willing to rebel against their party line to back May’s Brexit deal, they say persuading them to back a no-deal departure would be harder, especially if the salesman were Johnson.

Tax Cuts

The focus of Johnson’s campaign is Brexit, but he’s also made promises to cut taxes. A report on Tuesday by the Institute for Fiscal Studies said his proposals to raise tax thresholds would cost 20 billion pounds a year ($25 billion), and benefit higher earners most.

After a weekend of difficult headlines about his private life after police were called to his partner’s London apartment early Friday morning, Johnson said he would never discuss his private life. He left his second wife last year, and has a long history of extra-marital affairs.

Johnson said his plan for his first day in office if he became prime minister would be to “make sure that we have a plan that will convince our European friends and partners that we are absolutely serious about coming out.”

He has built his campaign around a commitment to get Britain out of the EU by Oct. 31, but in his limited public appearances, he has wobbled on the firmness of that pledge. Indeed, some of his supporters have left his office convinced he won’t go for a no-deal Brexit.

‘Getting It Done’

On Sunday, the group of Conservatives committed to the hardest Brexit, who had been backing Johnson, fired a warning shot by reactivating their online “Stand Up For Brexit” campaign.

While they may be gratified by his return to a firm line on Oct. 31, it’s possible they’ll be less happy with Johnson’s comment that “you’re going to need some kind of agreement,” including an implementation period. The interview suggested that, although Johnson said May’s deal is “dead,” he plans to use a lot of it.

Johnson said he was sure that the difficulty of the Irish border could be dealt with using technology. “What’s changed now is that there is a real positive energy about getting it done,” he said.

Rudd was unimpressed. “I appreciate Boris’ enthusiasm and his confident positivity but we are still looking for the evidence of what the plan is,” she told the BBC. “I think Boris needs to go further about what he is doing. We need to understand what the facts are. Let’s not pretend this is simple.”

As the front-runner, Johnson has thus far kept his exposure to the bare minimum. He’s refused to take part in at least two television debates, and avoided interviews. That led his rival for the job, Jeremy Hunt -- the current foreign secretary -- to accuse him of trying to “slink” into office by the “back door.”

Hunt will on Tuesday pledge to increase Britain’s defense budget to 2.5% of gross domestic product, up from 2%, by 2024. He’ll say this will keep the U.K. as a “first-rank military power,” according to his office.

(Updates with Rudd comments from seventh paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Robert Hutton in London at rhutton1@bloomberg.net;Kitty Donaldson in London at kdonaldson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tim Ross at tross54@bloomberg.net, Robert Jameson, Stuart Biggs

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