Boris Johnson has claimed that a Conservative government would be freed up to give more state aid to struggling companies, after leaving the European Union.
As he continued to hammer home the message that he would “get Brexit done”, Johnson said it would be an opportunity to escape EU bailout rules – an argument previously more associated with Labour.
The Conservatives said they would replace the current state aid regime with a new system, in line with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules – though these also impose strict restrictions.
Johnson said the new approach would be faster, and make the rules clearer.
At a press conference in Westminster, the prime minister claimed that leaving the EU would also allow the UK to charge zero VAT on tampons, change public procurement rules so that government contracts boost the local economy, and promote a “buy British” rule for public bodies.
Free market thinktanks reacted with scepticism. Allie Renison, head of Europe and trade policy at the Institute of Directors, said: “While we need more clarity around the detail, the proposals outlined do not fit easily with ambitions for a ‘Global Britain’. Indeed they suggest a retreat away from free and open markets, with clear implications for a comprehensive new trade relationship with the EU. This is not the kind of divergence we should be seeking in the first instance. It seems like a bad solution in search of the wrong problem.”
The economist Jonathan Portes, of the thinktank UK in a Changing Europe, said the policies meant the Tory party had put forward “its most protectionist manifesto for a century”.
Johnson made the announcement at a press conference where he was flanked by two of his senior colleagues from the Vote Leave campaign – Michael Gove, now a cabinet minister, and former Labour MP Gisela Stuart.
Stuart used her speech at the event to urge longtime Labour voters to “set party allegiance aside to get Brexit done” and support Johnson on 12 December.
“I say to these traditional Labour voters who three and a half years ago voted to leave, that we can bring the country back together again, and we can unite, but that is not by voting for Jeremy Corbyn,” she said.
Labour has promised to negotiate its own Brexit deal – which it would then put to a referendum.
But party insiders have acknowledged they face a tough battle to hang on to a string of heartland seats across the Midlands and the north of England.
Stuart, who once represented Birmingham Edgbaston, said she still held Labour values, but her old party had deserted her under Corbyn.
“Whilst my values have not changed, the same cannot be said of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party,” she said, bemoaning the absence of what she called “the moderate, pragmatic and fair-minded politics that has been characteristic of Labour in all my political life”.
“The Labour party of Tony Blair, John Smith and Gordon Brown has gone, at least for now,” she said, adding: “Voting for Brexit this time does not make me a Tory now, or in the future.”