Delivering the first in a series of speeches branded as the ‘Road to Brexit’ campaign by Downing Street, the hard-core pro-Brexit minister said “Brexchosis” was reflective of Britain’s self-deprecating spirit that failed to visualise the benefits of breaking free from an “outdated” economic bloc.
“So much of this is about confidence and national self-belief. We love to run ourselves down – in fact we are Olympic gold medal winners in the sport of national self-deprecation,” he said in his speech.
“And in the current bout of Brexchosis we are missing the truth: that it is our collective national job now to ensure that when the history books come to be written, Brexit will be seen as just the latest way in which the British bucked the trend…and had the courage to break free from an idea – however noble its origins – that had become outdated,” he said.
Throwing his weight behind Premier Theresa May, the minister sought to strike a conciliatory tone by saying the prime minister had the “cure” for so-called “Brexchosis”.
But when asked to guarantee he would not walk out if his Cabinet colleagues failed to support his hard Brexit view of a future relationship with the European Union, he evaded the question by simply saying he was “lucky to serve”.
His refusal to rule out a resignation comes days before a planned “away day” of the Brexit sub-committee at Chequers next week, at which May is hoping to get her feuding Cabinet to agree on the contours of the UK’s post-Brexit trade ties with the EU in the relaxed setting of her countryside prime ministerial retreat. Johnson, seen as the leader of the hard Brexit brigade in the Conservative party, admitted being at the receiving end of a lot of abuse over his stance but stressed he will not allow Britain to reverse the results of the June 2016 referendum.
“I believe that would be a disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal. We cannot and will not let it happen,” he warned.
Attacking the Opposition parties in favour of a second referendum, Johnson said that he was convinced even if there were to be a second vote, it would simply lead to another year of “wrangling and turmoil and feuding”.
The 53-year-old London MP urged people to unite around an “outward-looking, confident” UK. He cited Britain’s common sympathies with non-EU people, from “the Americans, the Swiss, the Canadians, the Pakistanis”, as one of the reasons why the UK has had difficulty in adapting to the whole concept of EU integration. He said the EU was not just about business convenience, but to achieve a wider political goal.
“The aim is therefore to create an overarching European state as the basis for a new sense of European political identity…It is hard to make it cohere with our particular traditions of independent parliamentary and legal systems that go back centuries,” he said.
In an attempt to reach out to those still firmly in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the EU, he said that he knew he could not persuade everybody.
“If we are to carry this project through to national success, then we must also reach out to those who still have anxieties…I want to try to anatomise at least some of those fears…that Brexit is not grounds for fear but hope,” he said.
Johnson, one of the leading figures of the ‘Leave’ campaign in the lead up to the Brexit referendum, also called on Brexiteers not to “gloat” about their victory and dismiss the sense of solidarity felt by ‘Remain’ supporters in Britain with their European neighbours. “It is not good enough to say to remainers – you lost, get over it, because we must accept that the vast majority are actuated by entirely noble sentiments,” he noted in his conciliatory address.
From Johnson’s own party, Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston accused him of an “optimism bias” about the benefits of Brexit.
European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, was also quick to react with the words “total nonsense” to describe some of Johnson’s claims about the EU.