Boris Johnson has refused to rule out quitting this year as he put pressure on the Prime Minister not to leave the UK aligned with EU rules after Brexit.
The Foreign Secretary used a near-5,000 word speech on Wednesday to set out his case for Brexit being “the great liberal project of the age”.
Yet, Mr Johnson also took the opportunity to send a message to Cabinet colleagues, ahead of their gathering at the Prime Minister’s country retreat of Chequers this month.
At the crunch meeting, Government ministers will decide on their strategy for the next phase of Brexit negotiations and formalise what form of future relationship they want Britain to have with the EU beyond March 2019.
The Cabinet are said to be split between those such as Chancellor Philip Hammond, who want the UK to seek a close relationship with Brussels, and those such as Brexit cheerleader Mr Johnson, who favour the ability to move away from EU regulations.
Following his speech, Mr Johnson was asked whether he would guarantee not resigning from the Cabinet this year, if ministers collectively agree to chase alignment with the EU after Brexit.
Mr Johnson failed to address the question and only replied: “We’re all very lucky to serve and I’m certainly one of those.”
It follows reports Mr Johnson could be preparing to dramatically quit Theresa May’s top team if he sees a “soft” Brexit taking shape.
Suggesting future alignment with EU rules is “all about voluntarism”, Mr Johnson expressed his wish for Britain not to be left in “permanent congruence with the EU”.
He said: “When it comes to EU standards for washing machines or hairdryers or vacuum cleaners or whatever, it may very well make sense for us to remain in alignment as a matter of choice.
“Something we elect to do. For the purposes of supply chains and so on there are many businesses who understand the need for that.
“But I don’t think we should necessarily commit, as a matter of treaty, that forever and a day we are going to remain locked into permanent congruence with the EU.
“That doesn’t seem to me a sensible thing to do.
“If you’re going to come out you then you might as well take the advantages of difference.”
Mr Johnson added it would be “anti-democratic and very hard to justify” if the EU was able to impose new regulations on the UK after Brexit “when we’re not round the table” and “in a way that we can’t contest”.
In a wide-ranging address, trailed as being a message to Remain supporters, the Foreign Secretary insisted “we will continue to be Europeans both practically and psychologically”.
He said: “Brexit is about re-engaging this country with its global identity, and all the energy that can flow from that.
“And I absolutely refuse to accept the suggestion that it is some un-British spasm of bad manners. It’s not some great V-sign from the cliffs of Dover.
“It is the expression of a legitimate and natural desire for self-government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
In a swipe at former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, Mr Johnson added Brexit “is surely not some reactionary Faragiste concept”.
Mr Johnson claimed “EU regulation is not always suited to the economic needs of the UK”, claiming rules made in Brussels are about trying to “create an overarching European state”.
The Foreign Secretary, who spearheaded the Vote Leave campaign, also repeated his promises that more money can be spent on the NHS after Brexit, while the Government will be able to cut VAT on some products.
However, he warned Brexit is not “some economic panacea any more than it is right to treat it as an economic pandemic”.
“The success of Brexit will depend on what we make of it,” he added.
“And a success is what we will make of it – together. And that very success will be the best thing for the whole of continental Europe.”
Mr Johnson called for “confidence and national self-belief” as he brought up the example of a constituent thinking of leaving the UK due to Brexit, telling her: “Don’t go to Canada or anywhere else”.
European Commission president Jean Claude-Juncker branded Mr Johnson’s claims Brussels officials are attempting to build an EU state as “total nonsense”.
“Some in the British political society are against the truth, pretending that I am a stupid, stubborn federalist, that I am in favour of a European superstate,” he told a press conference.
“I am strictly against a European superstate. We are not the United States of America, we are the European Union, which is a rich body because we have these 27, or 28, nations.
]”The EU cannot be built against the European nations, so this is total nonsense.”
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer hit out at Mr Johnson’s “empty rhetoric”, commenting: “His insistence on deregulating our economy is the opposite of what businesses and trade unions want to hear.
“Instead of building the consensus we need, the Government’s approach will only further divide the country and put jobs, rights and living standards at risk.”
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake insisted the “completely deluded” speech was about the Foreign Secretary’s “ambitions to become the next prime minister”.
“The lack of detail and understanding shown in this back of a fag packet speech would be astounding, if we didn’t already know that the Government has no clue and no plan,” he said.
Mr Johnson also came under fire from Tory colleagues, with pro-Remain MP Sarah Wollaston accusing him of “humiliating and belittling” his constituent.
She wrote on Twitter: “Now we urgently need a serious speech that addresses the reality of the practical issues, timescales & contingency planning including Irish border.”
Fellow Remain-supporting Conservative Anna Soubry claimed Mr Johnson “fails to understand the very real concerns of British business”.
Mr Johnson’s address is part of a series of upcoming speeches by top Cabinet ministers, including Theresa May, titled “The Road to Brexit”.
(c) Sky News 2018: Boris Johnson refuses to rule out resigning from Cabinet over Brexit