UK citizens after Brexit should have the freedom to retire to Spain, work overseas, go on “cheapo flights to stag dos” and fall in love with foreigners just as easily as now, Boris Johnson has said, urging remainers to see the benefits of leaving the EU.
However, in a Valentine’s Day speech which opened as a love letter to remainers, the foreign secretary also underlined the benefits of separation, setting out areas where the UK may diverge from EU regulation, including financial services, stem cell research and environmental regulation to loosen planning laws.
Johnson, whose speech at the Policy Exchange thinktank in London was billed as his vision for a “liberal Brexit”, said he wanted to extend a hand to remain voters who he accepted were feeling a sense of loss.
Friends, family and constituents had told him their feelings of “grief and alienation,” he said.
He said although some fears had been unfounded, Johnson said he was also concerned about “a hardening of the mood, a deepening of the anger”, adding: “We must also reach out to those who still have anxieties.”
Johnson said he believed a second referendum would cause further division – though he did not say another vote would necessarily be won by the leave campaign.
“I say in all candour that if there were to be a second vote I believe that we would simply have another year of wrangling and turmoil and feuding in which the whole country would lose,” he said. “So let’s not go there.”
Brexit, he said, was “not some great V-sign from the cliffs of Dover” to outsiders as Britain pulled up the drawbridge. Johnson said he explicitly wanted to distance the government’s vision for Brexit from “some reactionary Faragiste concept”, in reference to the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage.
“We will continue ever more intensively to go on cheapo flights to stag parties in ancient cities, meet interesting people, fall in love, struggle amiably to learn the European languages whose decline has been a paradoxical feature of EU membership,” he said.
“There is no sensible reason why we should not be able to retire to Spain, as indeed we did long before Spain joined the EU, or anywhere else.”
However, Johnson said he also wanted to lay out a case for future regulatory divergence from the EU, an intention which could set him at odds with cabinet colleagues seeking to maintain close alignment to maintain a free flow of trade.
“We would be mad to go through this process of extrication from the EU, and not to take advantage of the economic freedoms it will bring,” he said.
“It is only by taking back control of our laws that UK firms and entrepreneurs will have the freedom to innovate, without the risk of having to comply with some directive devised by Brussels, at the urgings of some lobby group, with the aim of holding back a UK competitor.”
Johnson said the UK government would be irresponsible if it found itself committed to having regulatory alignment in emerging sectors such as artificial intelligence, robotics or bioscience, where he said the UK “may want to do things differently”.
“In a global marketplace, where we are trading in products that hadn’t been conceived even five years ago, serving markets that were poverty stricken only 20 years ago, it seems extraordinary that the UK should remain lashed to the minute prescriptions of a regional trade bloc,” he said.
Johnson also suggested other benefits of regulatory divergence, including fisheries, banning the transport of live animals, ending subsidies to rich landowners and cutting VAT on fuel. Planning laws could be relaxed, he claimed, because the government could adapt environmental impact assessments.
Stem cell technology and financial services could also benefit, he said. “It may be that we will need a regulatory framework, scrupulous and moral, but not afraid of the new. The same point can be made of innovative financial services instruments, where the FCA already leads the way.”
Johnson, one of the leading figures of the leave campaign before the referendum, has borne much of the public anger from remain voters, especially because of the campaign’s promise for increased spending on the NHS, which the foreign secretary has made clear he still believes could happen.
He said he recognised there was some jeopardy in positioning himself as the figurehead to make the case for a liberal vision of Brexit, saying: “I run the risk of simply causing further irritation.”
However, he hinted he believed the government had not adequately addressed the emotional attachment and identity crisis among remain voters which was fuelling anger and demands for a second referendum.
“I must take that risk because it is this government’s duty to advocate and explain the mission on which we are now engaged,” he said.
“It has become absolutely clear to me that we cannot take the argument for granted. We cannot expect the case to make itself. That was the mistake of the pro-EU elite when they won the last referendum in 1975.”
The EU, he said, was developing laws not just for economic benefit but “according to whether they help to build a United States of Europe”. A claim swiftly denied by Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European commission, who said it was “total nonsense” to say he wanted to build a European superstate.
Some in the British political establishment were “pretending that I am a stupid stubborn federalist” he said, when asked to respond to the Johnson speech.
After the speech, Johnson insisted he believed Theresa May was the right prime minister to lead the negotiations and said she was also sincere in a desire to reach out to remain voters. “I think the prime minister’s language, when I’ve heard her, has been always irenic and she understands the task we have; we have to bring people along with this project,” he told reporters.
“I accept that, this morning, I’m not going to bring along everybody. But I’ve got to try, I’ve got to make the effort. Because, in the end, these are people’s feelings and people’s feelings matter.”
The shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said the speech showed the government’s intention for a “Brexit of deregulation, where rights and protections are casually cast aside and where the benefits of the single market and the customs union are ignored”.
Criticism also came from remain-backing Tories. MP Sarah Wollaston said the speech did not address the “serious practical difficulties” posed by Brexit.
Johnson’s speech, at first the initiative of the foreign secretary, has now been cast as part of a series of speeches by cabinet ministers on the UK’s post-Brexit future, which will continue over the weekend as May flies to Munich to give a speech on security cooperation.