A speech by Boris Johnson designed to burnish his leadership credentials has been overshadowed by his incorrect claim that he “didn’t say anything about Turkey” during the 2016 EU referendum campaign.
The former foreign secretary tried to argue he had no need to apologise for Vote Leave’s warnings that Turks could come to the UK if the country were to join the EU, because he had not made them himself.
“I didn’t make any remarks about Turkey, mate,” Johnson said when asked about his stance on immigration after the speech in Staffordshire. When asked if he would apologise, he said: “Since I made no remarks, I can’t disown them.”
But the assertions were almost immediately undermined when a letter he wrote with Michael Gove to David Cameron seven days before the referendum was reproduced on social media.
“The public will draw the reasonable conclusion that the only way to avoid having common borders with Turkey is to vote leave and take back control on 23 June,” the letter stated, even though few at the time believed Turkey would ever be allowed to become a full member of the EU.
Warnings about the immigration consequences of a possible Turkish accession to the EU were a key aspect of the campaign run by Vote Leave, the official out campaign.
Johnson, who was its figurehead, even tried to claim on Friday that he was a peripheral figure, saying: “You do me too much honour, I was happy to support leave.”
The row about Johnson and Vote Leave’s use of the Turkey issue to persuade the public to vote in favour of Brexit overshadowed an undisguised leadership pitch in which he accused Theresa May of “wasting our time” trying to get MPs to change their minds about her “ex-deal”.
He challenged the prime minister to “go back to Brussels” in the light of the 230-vote House of Commons defeat of her Brexit plan and insist the Irish backstop be removed or significantly watered down.
Speaking at the headquarters of the tractor and digger maker JCB, Johnson said: “I fear that at present we are facing the wrong direction and trying to change the wrong bit of the landscape, and if we spend the next few weeks hydraulically straining to move MPs from one camp to the other, pointlessly trying to get Corbyn to parley at No 10, we will be wasting our time.”
Pointedly reminding his audience that “the prime minister’s deal was thrown out by a record 230 votes, the largest majority in parliamentary history”, Johnson argued May should go back the EU “fortified with the emphatic and conclusive mandate of parliament and demand real change to that backstop”.
He said the UK should hold back “at least half of the £39bn” that May had agreed to pay Brussels until it agreed a deal on revised terms.
May has been meeting some party leaders and Tory backbenchers as she tries to work out how to resolve the Brexit impasse. Allies of Johnson said he was not on the invite list. Few believe the EU will concede on the backstop.