Boris Johnson has used his first major speech of the general election campaign to say that Brexit will allow Theresa May to strike new trade deals that could allow the sale of haggis to the US and lower tariffs on whisky to India.
The foreign secretary waded into the campaign as Conservative sources sought to dismiss the idea he would be sidelined by May to minimise the potential for gaffes and ensure she is able to claim full credit for any victory.
Speaking at the lord mayor’s banquet in London, Johnson said the Brexit process might cause “some plaster to fall off the ceiling” but he was sure May could “pull it off and usher in a new era of free trade deals”.
He cited haggis, which the US has banned on health grounds since 1971, and Scotch whisky, on which India imposes a 150% duty, as examples of products that could be targeted for greater exports.
“I was amazed, when walking the backstreets of Uxbridge, to find a little company that makes the wooden display counters that are used to sell the duty-free Toblerones in every Saudi Arabian airport,” he said.
“If we can crack markets like that, think what we can do when we have free trade deals with America, where they still have a ban on British haggis. Think of our potential whisky sales to India if only we could negotiate a cut in their duty of 150% on Scotch.”
However, Johnson is outside May’s closest team of trusted cabinet ministers sent out daily to deliver her message of “strong and stable” government, who are likely to be Philip Hammond, Michael Fallon, Amber Rudd, and Damian Green.
The party insists he will still be active on the campaign trail given his popularity with voters, and he is due to give a series of media interviews on Thursday morning. “The foreign secretary will have a clear role to play,” said a senior Conservative source. “You will see him in a prominent role in the very near future.”
Johnson’s role has divided Conservative MPs between those who are keen to capitalise on his ability to connect with voters and those concerned about his ability to stay on message, which has been publicly mocked by May in the past. One Tory backbencher said: “Every colleague in a marginal seat wants him campaigning for them. He is fantastic on the stump.”
Another Conservative MP said Johnson’s absence from the party’s campaign so far had been very conspicuous and there would be huge demand for him to visit constituencies.
“The problem is, every victory, certain people want to claim it. If it was going to be crushing defeat for us then they’d be pushing Boris out there. Theresa wants to claim this all for herself. He’s incredibly popular in my seat. Boris is a winner and he’s got the charisma and gets the TV cameras with him,” he said.
One problem with sending Johnson out on a battlebus tour is the controversy generated by the Vote Leave bus, which had a slogan on the side promising £350m a week from Britain’s EU contribution for the NHS.
May has been pressed to commit any funds saved from withdrawing from the EU to helping the struggling health service. But she has avoided making any promises, despite pledging to carry out the will of the people who voted in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
Asked again whether the pledge would be honoured, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “The country listened to what they said and voted to leave the EU. I am absolutely certain that if we get a good outcome from the Brexit negotiations, there will be more money for the NHS because our economy will be stronger.”