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Irish border shouldn't have dominated Brexit debate, says Boris Johnson in attack on PM

By Joe Watts

Boris Johnson has savagely attacked Theresa May's Brexit plans as a "democratic disaster" as he hit out at her for allowing the issue of the Northern Irish border to dominate the debate.

In an excoriating takedown of Ms May's approach set out by the cabinet at Chequers, the former foreign secretary told the House of Commons the Prime Minister will leave the UK in "miserable permanent limbo" after it leaves the European Union.

But he said it is not too late for Britain to change its course.

Mr Johnson, who quit his government job over the Chequers deal, urged Ms May to stick to the vision for Brexit she set out in her Lancaster House speech 18 months ago, but argued she had since undertaken a "stealthy retreat".

His criticism comes at an unstable time for Ms May's leadership, with the Prime Minister having only narrowly avoided a commons defeat on Tuesday that could have triggered a "no confidence" vote, and Tory backbenchers plotting to overthrow her.

Mr Johnson delivered the attack during his resignation speech, surrounded by supportive Brexiteer Tory MPs, at the opposite end of the government benches from the ministerial despatch box he has spoken from over the past two years.

Mr Johnson dismissed Mrs May's facilitated customs arrangement plan for the Irish border as a "fantastical Heath Robinson" creation.

And he complained that his own suggestions for technical solutions to keep the border open had never been "properly examined", but were treated as a "taboo" following the agreement of a backstop arrangement last December.

He said that "worst of all we allowed the question of the Northern Irish border, which had hitherto been assumed on all sides to be readily soluble, to become so politically charged as to dominate the debate".

Mr Johnson's statement was briefly interrupted as Speaker John Bercow tells MPs to remain quiet, saying: "Order, order. The statement by the right honourable gentleman must be heard and by long-standing convention it is heard with courtesy and without heckling."

Mr Johnson continued: "No one on either side of this house or anywhere wants a hard border. You couldn't construct one if you tried but there certainly can be different rules north and south of the border to reflect the fact that there are two different jurisdictions, in fact there already are.

"There can be checks away from the border and technical solutions as the Prime Minister rightly described at Mansion House, in fact there already are.

"But when I and other colleagues, and I single out my right honourable friend the honourable member for Haltemprice and Howden, proposed further technical solutions to make customs and regulatory checks remotely those proposals were never even properly examined as if such solutions had become intellectually undesirable in the context of the argument.

"And somehow after the December joint report whose backstop arrangement we were all told was entirely provisional never to be invoked it became taboo even to discuss technical fixes."

In the wake of the speech, Mr Johnson's odds of becoming the next prime minister were pitched at 5/1 by bookmaker William Hill, behind only Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

In an appeal to his Conservative colleagues, the ex-minister said: "It is not too late to save Brexit. We have time in these negotiations. We have changed tack once and we can change again. The problem is not that we failed to make the case for a free trade agreement of the kind that we spelt out at Lancaster House. We haven't even tried. We must try now because we will not get another chance to get it right."

In a message directed at his former cabinet colleague and one-time leadership rival Michael Gove, he said that it is "nonsense" that the UK can make a "botched treaty" now then simply get out of the EU and try to change it later.

He ended by saying the Government had to acknowledge that the approach it was taking would hamper the UK's ability to make free trade deals, because to do anything else would be making "the fatal mistake of underestimating the intelligence of the public".

Ms May was giving evidence to a select committee while Mr Johnson was delivering his speech in the Commons. Asked if she would watch it on catch-up, she said: "I think I'll probably be doing my red box."

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