Amber Rudd says Boris Johnson is 'backseat driving' over Brexit
Amber Rudd has accused Boris Johnson of backseat driving as she questioned the timing of his 4,000-word vision of Britain’s departure from the EU and made clear that she did not want the foreign secretary managing the Brexit process.
The home secretary said she had “unfortunately not” had time to read her cabinet colleague’s entire article, published in the Daily Telegraph a day after a terrorist attack on the London Underground.
“I had rather a lot to do on Friday – there was a bomb that nearly went off in Parsons Green. Yesterday I chaired Cobra, I went to see the police. I didn’t have time to read that piece,” she told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr show.
Rudd, whose comments were pointed to by Downing Street aides as representative of government thinking, was also asked about the intervention of the Conservative Scottish leader, Ruth Davidson, who tweeted on Friday:
“I think she has a point – I had a very busy weekend dealing with what could have been a terrible attack on our public transport,” Rudd said.
However, another cabinet minister, Damian Green, made clear that Johnson would not be sacked, and said the timing was acceptable because “nobody wants to avoid any kind of debate about what is one of the most important issues for decades to come”.
Johnson’s dramatic intervention triggered a fierce debate within the Conservative party, with claims that he was once again working with Michael Gove, who previously wrecked the foreign secretary’s chances of leading the Tory party. The international aid secretary, Priti Patel, was also reported as being a supporter of calls for a bolder approach to Brexit.
Johnson tweeted that he fully backed the prime minister and her speech, to be delivered in Florence on Friday, but many accused him of launching a leadership bid and trying to undermine what is expected to be a more conciliatory approach from May.
Some Tory MPs including cabinet colleagues reacted furiously, calling for May to sack Johnson, and claiming that his article, which was not fully cleared by Downing Street, was disloyal and badly timed.
However, Rudd said Johnson was an “irrepressible enthusiast” about Brexit and that she did not see it as a leadership bid. “I think it is absolutely fine. I would expect nothing less from Boris,” she said, although later suggested that time would tell whether it was a helpful move or not.
The home secretary, who was a vocal and passionate remain campaigner in last year’s EU referendum, was also asked about her comments at the time that Johnson was the “life and soul of the party but he is not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening”.
Choosing not to withdraw the comment, Rudd said: “What I meant by that is I don’t want him managing the Brexit process. What we’ve got is Theresa May managing that process. She is driving the car – to continue the allegory – and I’m going to make sure as far as I am concerned and the rest of the cabinet are concerned that I’m going to help her do that.”
Asked whether what Johnson had done was backseat driving, she replied: “Yes, you could call it backseat driving.”
She refused to be drawn on a key point made by Johnson in the article that £350m a week could be clawed back and spent on the NHS, hinting that leave campaigners had enjoyed forcing others to keep repeating the controversial figure.
“I’m not going to refight the referendum and be drawn into that device of theirs to talk about that number,” she said, adding that the important numbers were 48% versus 52% who voted to leave.
“I want to make sure that the government delivers on that and brings as many of the 48 with us as well,” said Rudd, striking a different tone to colleagues by stressing the need for a Brexit that unites the UK.
“I would say to [Johnson] come with us and make sure you support the government on trying to unite people around the exit we are going to deliver.”
Speaking on Sunday with Paterson on Sky News, Green defended the foreign secretary, saying: “The timing of an individual article is much less important than the ultimate result. Everyone is working towards the best possible Brexit result. They will want to see that we have a deal that enhances our prosperity.”
However, in a second interview on the BBC’s Sunday Politics he too referred to Rudd’s car analogy. “It is clear that the driver of the car in this instance is the prime minister and it is the job of the rest of us in cabinet to agree to a set of proposals and then get behind those proposals.”
A spokesman for Johnson said: “The prime minister is leading the Brexit negotiations and Boris is fully behind her in getting the best deal.”
The government is preparing to publish its latest Brexit position paper on Monday, on the question of security cooperation. Rudd revealed that the UK wanted a treaty that would allow the UK to access the tools that it currently has use of, including Interpol, and said her discussions with European colleagues had made her confident that a deal would be reached.