UK prime minister gets a Brexit boost, but a big rival is waiting in the wings

  • Theresa May's allies are rallying around her as criticism mounts of her Brexit strategy.
  • But the big event at the Conservative Party conference on Tuesday will be the appearance of May's rival, and contender for leadership of the party and the nation, Boris Johnson.
  • The former foreign secretary is due to address party delegates at a fringe event at the conference in Birmingham, England.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May's allies are rallying around her as criticism mounts of her Brexit strategy.

But the big event at the Conservative Party conference on Tuesday will be the appearance of May's rival, and contender for leadership of the party and the nation, Boris Johnson.

The former foreign secretary addressed party delegates at a fringe event at the conference in Birmingham, England, telling them that he wanted to "stop a ridiculous seeping away of our self-belief.

He said the EU is, and always will be, important to the U.K. but that too much of the country's previous focus had been on the bloc."

Johnson's speech was frequently applauded by the audience and his comments were closely followed for signs that he is preparing to launch a leadership bid. He joked about such speculation himself, saying that Chancellor Philip Hammond's prediction that Johnson would never be prime minister was "one of the first treasury forecasts in a long time to have a distinct ring of truth."

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives at Downing Street ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting on July 3, 2018 in London, England.
Dan Kitwood | Getty Images
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives at Downing Street ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting on July 3, 2018 in London, England.

'Chuck Chequers'

An influential and outspoken lawmaker, Johnson resigned from his foreign secretary post in July, saying that May's Brexit strategy would lead the U.K. to have "the status of a colony."

Since then, he has repeatedly criticized May's Brexit plan, that seeks close regulatory alignment with the European Union after Brexit, calling it "deranged" earlier this week.

On Tuesday, Johnson told party delegates that May's Chequers plan was "politically humiliating" and a "constitutional outrage." Staying aligned with the EU was "dangerous and unstable politically and economically," he added, and was not what voters wanted.

He received a large applause when he said the government should "chuck Chequers." However, he also called on delegates to back May.

Despite being out of the Cabinet, Johnson has remained one of the main figureheads calling for a "hard" Brexit and there is widespread speculation he's waiting in the wings to become the next Conservative leader and prime minister.

Johnson refused to rule out whether he would launch a leadership bid when asked on the subject last week. However, he has laid the groundwork for a contest, setting out his alternative plans for Brexit in a 4,500-word essay published last week in The Daily Telegraph newspaper, in which he proposed a "Super Canada" free trade deal. Put simply, he advocated an enhanced free trade deal with the EU, like Canada has, with zero tariffs on goods and services.

Several key figures in the party have rebuffed his Brexit plan, however, and there are those that don't want Johnson to steal the limelight.

"Inevitably, there's always going to be people looking for the next generation, the next leader, and I think most of us are very, very clear that there's not going to be a leadership contest any time soon," pro-EU, Conservative lawmaker Nicky Morgan told CNBC on Tuesday. "It would be very damaging for the party," she said.

"Boris' essay (in the Telegraph) is there and it's being talked about, but what I think is remarkable is how people have been very dismissive of him, which is not good in other ways. You don't want Conservatives all busy criticizing each other. I don't want to spend the week talking about Boris," Morgan added.

Rallying round

Under fire at home and abroad, May's position has looked more vulnerable than ever as she entered this year's Tory party conference. But a handful of key ministers have rallied around her.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove told CNBC on Monday that he was confident that May could strike a deal with the EU and avoid the dreaded, at least for markets, "no-deal" scenario.

"I think what there is is a calm steady hand on the tiller — we're steering our way out of the EU and becoming global Britain. One of the critical things about that is making sure that we get behind the proposition the prime minister has put forward, one which honors the referendum result and also for Europe ensures there is tariff-free access to the U.K. market," he told CNBC's Steve Sedgwick in Birmingham. "I think that's a good deal on the table."

Just because May is receiving some much-needed support doesn't mean her Brexit strategy, known as the 'Chequers plan,' will survive.

Peter Bone, a Conservative lawmaker and Brexit campaigner, told CNBC's Steve Sedgwick Tuesday that May's plan is "dead."

"It was dead when it was uttered really and once the EU rejected it, it was dead (too) and, of course, it's not supported by at least a third of the Conservative party because it doesn't deliver Brexit."