Boris Johnson vows 'full-throated' support for Theresa May if she secures Brexit 'freedom clause'
Boris Johnson has pledged to give Theresa May his "full-throated support" if she secures a so-called "freedom clause" on the Northern Ireland backstop in talks with the European Union.
The former Foreign Secretary - who resigned in protest at Mrs May's handling of the Brexit negotiations last year - said he had heard it "from the lips of very senior sources" that the Prime Minister intended to push for a "proper binding legal change to the current lamentable withdrawal agreement".
The hint that a leading Brexiteer could swing behind Mrs May's deal came as ministers signalled their support for a Commons bid by influential Tory backbencher Sir Graham Brady to demand changes to the backstop.
"This, I am told, is now genuinely the intention of the PM," Mr Johnson wrote in his latest Telegraph column.
"After a long discussion between her advisers, Team Freedom (said to include her husband Philip and the Chief Whip Julian Smith) has prevailed over Team Remain: those who wanted to do a deal with the Labour party and keep us in the Customs Union.
"If that is so, then it is the first piece of unadulterated good Brexit news we have had for a long time."
Brexiteers and the DUP - who Mrs May relies on for her Commons majority - have savaged the backstop, which is intended to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland if talks with the EU break down.
They are are concerned that the back-up plan will leave the UK in the regulatory orbit of Brussels indefinitely if it is triggered - with no way to leave the arrangement unilaterally.
Mr Johnson said MPs on all sides of the House had lined up to attack the backstop ahead of an historic major Commons defeat on Mrs May's deal, adding: "If we mean it, if we really try, I have no doubt that the EU will give us the Freedom Clause we need.
"So now is the time to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood and get on that trusty BAE 146 and go back to Brussels and get it.
"And if the PM secures that change – a proper UK-sized perforation in the fabric of the backstop itself - I have no doubt that she will have the whole country full-throatedly behind her."
The boost from Mr Johnson, a longstanding critic of Mrs May's plans, came as ministers hinted at their backing for a Conservative attempt to curb the backstop in a Commons vote later this week.
Sir Graham Brady - who chairs the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers - has tabled an amendment calling for the plan "to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border".
Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Sunday signalled that the push had the tacit support of Government, telling Sky News: "The impulse behind those who supported the Brady amendment I entirely understand and we need to look for a pragmatic solution."
The amendment, which will still need to be selected for a vote by Speaker John Bercow, has already won the backing of Damian Green, a key ally of the Prime Minister.
Speaking to the Westminster Hour last night, Sir Graham said he believed changes to the plan could be secured through "a legally binding codicil" to the Brexit withdrawal agreement - and said he believed both Number 10 and the DUP could get behind his amendment.
"I’ve spoken to a great many people including the Prime Minister, and the leadership of the DUP over the last couple of weeks," he said.
"And I think I have a pretty clear idea of what would be acceptable to them. So I hope the amendment will attract broad support and today I’ve had a number of colleagues tell me that they are going to come on board and put their name to it tomorrow."
But the push for changes to the backstop is likely to meet fierce resistance from the European Union, which has long warned that it is a vital part of the plan to avoid fresh disruption at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
In a fresh blow for Mrs May, Irish deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney on Sunday warned that the backstop was part of a "balanced package that isn’t going to change".
Taking aim at those seeking amendments to the deal, he told the BBC: "The problem with arguing against the backstop is that nobody yet who argues against that insurance mechanism… has come up with a pragmatic, sensible and legally sound way of avoiding border infrastructure emerging between the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland."