‘Grow up or go,’ Boris Johnson warned
Consternation at foreign secretary’s ‘divisive’ policy pronouncements
Boris Johnson was accused of destabilising the government at the Conservative party conference last Sunday by business leaders who warned that cabinet division was undermining economic confidence and by Tory MPs who texted him demanding that he resign as foreign secretary.
Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said there was growing impatience with “division and disorganisation at the heart of the party of government”, particularly with public disagreements on Brexit. Marshall said companies wanted a “comprehensive transition period, lasting at least three years” – in contrast to Johnson’s insistence on just two years. He said they had made it “very clear they expect competence and coherence from ministers as we move into a critical period for the economy”.
The damaging intervention came as Theresa May attempted to relaunch her premiership during this week’s four-day event in Manchester, amid what the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, called a “psychodrama” over the party’s direction. As some senior party members gave their views publicly, sources told the Guardian that backbench MPs had sent Johnson text messages urging him to resign because of what they saw as disloyalty to the prime minister.
Conservatives tried to keep the focus on policy with a series of announcements, including: • A pitch from May to young people promising to freeze tuition fees while ministers look again at the system. • Plans for a further £10bn ($13bn) for the help-to-buy home purchasing scheme from the communities secretary, Sajid Javid. • A £300m package from the chancellor, Philip Hammond, to link the planned HS2 high-speed railway up to cities not included on the route.
But tensions at the top of the party continued after Johnson gave an interview to the Sun setting out his four red lines for Brexit talks. His previous Telegraph article had led to damaging headlines before May’s speech in Florence. The Tory MP Anna Soubry, who favours a soft Brexit, tweeted last Saturday that he “must grow up or go”.
Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary, said Johnson “had to go” unless he came into line. She said on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour: “If he can’t keep stumm about his own views, if he can’t give up the oxygen of publicity, if he can’t stop setting down arbitrary red lines, then yes, he has to go. And the chief whip, or the prime minister, has to deliver that message.”
Others defended Johnson, insisting he wanted to ensure the Brexit vote was fulfilled. Michael Gove, the environment secretary, said Johnson was speaking “from the heart” over Brexit. “It’s something about which he feels deeply and passionately.” May was forced to insist the cabinet was united and she would be leader “for the long term” but refused to say whether Johnson was “unsackable”.