Birmingham( England): Former British foreign minister Boris Johnson set out his stall to the Conservative Party faithful on Tuesday, stopping just short of an outright leadership bid to replace Prime Minister Theresa May but tearing into her Brexit blueprint.
To standing ovations, cheers and laughter, Johnson, May's most powerful critic in her governing party, said her so-called Chequers plan to leave the European Union was a "cheat" and called on the party to return to its traditional values, including tax cuts and stricter law and order.
He also urged increased spending on the public health service. With just six months before Britain leaves the EU, May's precarious position at the helm of her party has been further shaken by criticism of her plans at home and in Brussels.
Johnson, the figurehead for the campaign to leave the EU, warned party members that if they stuck by Chequers, named after May's country residence where she hashed out an agreement with her ministers, they could be signing up to the party's electoral death. But he was quick to add he would stick by May, if not her plan, at least for now.
"Do not believe them when they say there is no other plan and no alternative," Johnson told the hundreds of Conservatives who queued to get a seat in a hall just across from the main venue where May will speak at the party's annual conference on Wednesday.
"Do not believe that we can somehow get it wrong now, bodge it now and fix it later," he said to cheers. "This is the moment to chuck Chequers," he said. "If we cheat the electorate, and Chequers is a cheat, we will escalate that sense of mistrust."
May has shown little sign of moving away from her blueprint, but after trying to display unity over Brexit at her party's conference in the city of Birmingham, Johnson looked to have shattered those attempts.
After charming the crowds, there was a hunger from some of those present for Johnson to go further and declare a leadership bid - something his aides say he is reluctant to do, yet.
"He is absolutely right about the threat that Chequers poses to our democracy, our country and ultimately the fortunes of the Conservative Party if we stick with it," Andrew Bridgen, a Conservative lawmaker, said.
"Am I disappointed (that he didn't declare)? No, because I think we probably can't have the self-indulgence of a leadership challenge. My letter of no confidence (in the prime minister) is in there as a marker on the ground."
Johnson suggested the party back one of May's earlier Brexit plans which he accuses her of ditching, and joked about a newspaper report that finance minister Philip Hammond did not think Johnson would become prime minister.
"I want also to congratulate my friend Philip Hammond for predicting that I will never become prime minister, the first treasury forecast in a long time I think to have a distinct ring of truth," he said to prolonged laughter and applause.
Johnson, who was the first Conservative mayor of left-leaning London, also attacked the opposition Labour Party, namechecked Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative prime minister from 1979 to 1990 who remains a hero to many in the party, and said it was a disgrace that no banker had been jailed after the 2008 financial crash.
May, asked in a series of broadcast interviews earlier about Johnson's expected intervention, said she expected his speech would be a "lively" event but declined to make any personal criticism.
"Boris always attracts lots of attention. Now is a time for a credible and serious plan, and credible and serious leadership. We have that from Theresa May, I think there are others who would struggle to provide that type of leadership," Justice Minister David Gauke told BBC TV.
May's team had hoped the conference would hand her a platform to revitalise a pledge she made when she became prime minister in 2016 to help those people who are "just about managing" and try to steal the initiative from Labour.
But the conference has been dominated by Brexit, with eurosceptic lawmakers attracting hundreds of Conservative members to their events on the fringes. Far fewer have turned out to hear ministers' speeches in the main hall.
"I think the whole country will be listening and the whole country will be saying here is a guy that was deeply involved in securing Brexit in the first place who is basically saying that Chequers is a constitutional outrage, and it is," Richard Tice, co-chairman of campaign group Leave means Leave, said after Johnson's speech.