May is too weak to fire John­son, say an­gry Tories

The Observer - - FRONT PAGE - by Toby Helm, Michael Sav­age and Daniel Bof­fey Stras­bourg

Se­nior Con­ser­va­tives have de­nounced Theresa May as “too weak” to unite her cab­i­net and run an ef­fec­tive gov­ern­ment af­ter she re­fused to sack her for­eign sec­re­tary, Boris John­son, for break­ing ranks over Brexit.

John­son in­fu­ri­ated Tory MPs on both sides of the Euro­pean de­bate when he spelt out his own per­sonal vi­sion of a hard Brexit in a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle, only days be­fore May is ex­pected to out­line pos­si­ble ar­eas for com­pro­mise with Brus­sels in a speech in Florence.

Down­ing Street in­sisted that May still had full con­fi­dence in John­son, al­though he had not in­formed her of the con­tent of his ar­ti­cle. Writ­ing in the Daily Tele­graph , John­son in­sisted that the UK must not pay any money to the EU for ac­cess to its mar­kets af­ter Brexit and made no men­tion of a tran­si­tion pe­riod af­ter 2019 to avoid a “cliff-edge” for UK busi­nesses.

May is now un­der­stood to back a tran­si­tional deal that could in­volve pay­ments to the EU for ac­cess to its mar­kets dur­ing a pe­riod of two to three years af­ter Brexit, and to ac­cept that the UK will need to fol­low the sin­gle mar­ket rule­book in that time.

John­son’s ar­ti­cle was seen across the

Tory party as the start of a lead­er­ship cam­paign to re­place May, in which he would po­si­tion him­self as the champion of a clean break with the Euro­pean Union, in con­trast to May and Chan­cel­lor Philip Ham­mond who are push­ing for a grad­ual exit.

Sev­eral for­mer Tory min­is­ters said yes­ter­day it was clear that John­son was set­ting out his lead­er­ship stall and tempt­ing May to sack him, in the knowl­edge that she had not got the author­ity to do so.

One said it was “blind­ingly ob­vi­ous” that May should dis­miss him, but it was doubt­ful that she would, be­cause she was too weak: “It is com­pletely dis­grace­ful. You do not write an ar­ti­cle like that with­out con­sult­ing the prime min­is­ter and your cab­i­net col­leagues. It is a com­plete ab­di­ca­tion of cab­i­net re­spon­si­bil­ity. This is all about Mr John­son, Mr John­son, Mr John­son, not about the in­ter­ests of gov­ern­ment or the coun­try.”

An­other MP said Tory col­leagues would be writ­ing to the whips de­mand­ing that John­son be fired be­cause he was a law unto him­self and a li­a­bil­ity. “He is de­lib­er­ately tempt­ing May to sack him but the aw­ful thing is that she is too pa­thet­i­cally weak to do so. So we have a cab­i­net openly at war on the most im­por­tant is­sue of the day and that is what we have to live with.”

John­son’s dra­matic in­ter­ven­tion is clearly in­tended to win sup­port from Brexit hard­lin­ers in the party. Tory MP Crispin Blunt, who was ready to back John­son for the Tory lead­er­ship last year, came to his de­fence, stat­ing that the ar­ti­cle merely re­peated gov­ern­ment pol­icy. But an­other MP said: “If there was a chance of me sup­port­ing him one day, it’s gone now.”

Ruth David­son, the Scot­tish Tory leader and a long-stand­ing critic of John­son, made clear her dis­ap­proval of the tim­ing of his ar­ti­cle, the day af­ter the Par­sons Green bomb in Lon­don. “On the day of a ter­ror at­tack where Bri­tons were maimed, just hours af­ter the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on ser­vice,” she tweeted. In Brus­sels the re­sponse was im­me­di­ate and fu­ri­ous. The Ital­ian leader of the so­cial­ist bloc, Gianni Pit­tella, likened the tone of the in­ter­ven­tion to that of Don­ald Trump.

Pit­tella said: “Boris John­son is em­bar­rass­ing his coun­try once again by re­peat­ing the lies of the Leave cam­paign. He is jeop­ar­dis­ing the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions by threat­en­ing to turn the UK into a low-reg­u­la­tion econ­omy. And he in­sults the in­tel­li­gence of the Bri­tish peo­ple with his tub-thump­ing jin­go­ism. It is more in keep­ing with Trump Tow­ers than White­hall.”

Many be­lieve May will leave John­son in place un­til af­ter the Tory con­fer­ence in Manch­ester, which be­gins in two weeks, and then dis­miss him in a sub­se­quent reshuf­fle. Some spec­u­lated John­son could fuel the cri­sis at the top of the party by stag­ing a dra­matic res­ig­na­tion af­ter May’s Florence speech, in the hope of us­ing the con­fer­ence to rally the hard-Brexit wing of the party be­hind him.

In an in­ter­view with the Ob­server, Vince Ca­ble, the Lib Dem leader, whose party con­fer­ence opened in Bournemouth yes­ter­day said: “He clearly thinks that Theresa May is on the verge of a U-turn which would lead to a tran­si­tional deal that would keep us in the sin­gle mar­ket.

“Boris John­son sees this as his chance to bag the top job, so is push­ing for a far more ex­treme Brexit. This might play well with hard right Con­ser­va­tive MPs, but would be a disas­ter for the UK econ­omy.”

Ruth David­son, the Scot­tish Tory leader, crit­i­cised the tim­ing of the ar­ti­cle, a day af­ter the Lon­don at­tack.

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