Big guns warn Johnson nobody unsackable’
Politics: Boris’s leadership hopes and Brexit comments irk top Tories
Cabinet heavyweights have delivered a slapdown to Boris Johnson after speculation over his leadership ambitions dominated the Conservative annual conference in Manchester.
Chancellor Philip Hammond warned that signs of disunity in Government were harming the UK’s Brexit negotiations, and sent a thinly-veiled caution to the Foreign Secretary that Cabinet ministers owe their loyalty to Theresa May and “nobody is unsackable”.
And First Secretary of State Damian Green - Mrs May’s effective deputy - flatly dismissed Mr Johnson’s demand that the Brexit transition period should last “not a second more” than two years, telling activists in Manchester that the final date of withdrawal could go a few months in either direction.
Mr Johnson expressed surprise that his decision to set out his personal red lines for Brexit in an eve-of-conference article in the Sun should have overshadowed the Prime Minister’s efforts to focus attention on the Conservatives’ domestic agenda at a time when the party is trailing Labour in the polls.
He told the Daily Telegraph: “I think, actually, if you studied what I said, it was basically Government policy. I think it’s extraordinary that so much fuss has been made about repeating Government policy, but there you go.”
But he came under fire form senior backbencher Nicky Morgan, who said Mr Johnson “had to go” unless he could show his loyalty to the Government.
And the British Chambers of Commerce warned that Cabinet feuding was damaging business confidence, in a stinging rebuke on the day of Mr Hammond’s keynote address to the conference.
BCC director-general Adam Marshall said businesses wanted a transition period of at least three years, adding: “Public disagreements between Cabinet ministers in recent weeks have only served to undermine business confidence, not just on Brexit negotiations but also on the many issues where firms need to see clear action from government closer to home.”
Mr Hammond acknowledged that the Cabinet was split over the nature of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, telling Sky News: “We know, on this big issue of how we take forward our exit from the European Union, what type of relationship we should have with the European Union in the future, there are differences of view, nobody is denying that.”
Ministers were “frustrated” by the slow progress of talks in Brussels, but Brexit Secretary David Davis’s hand was being weakened by signs of disunity within the Government, he said.
Asked whether Mr Johnson should be sacked, the Chancellor pointedly told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “We all serve at the Prime Minister’s pleasure and we all owe the Prime Minister our allegiance and our loyalty within the Cabinet.
“I have always operated on the principle that it is probably best to believe that nobody is unsackable. Everybody has got to pull their weight within the Government.”
Mr Hammond said Mrs May had his “100% support” and that he would back her if she chose to fight the next general election as Tory leader. He flatly denied reports that he offered Mr Johnson his support in any leadership bid in a 4am text on the night of the disastrous June 8 election.
The Chancellor said the whole Cabinet, including Mr Johnson, had signed up to the Brexit negotiating position set out by Mrs May in her Florence speech last month when she proposed a transition period of “around two years” after Britain leaves the EU.
Mr Hammond admitted that uncertainty over Brexit was harming the UK economy.
The continuing focus on Mr Johnson’s ambitions came as Mr Hammond fought to shift attention on the domestic agenda with the announcement of £400 million for transport links in the North of Eng-
“Said Mr Johnson had to go unless he could show his loyalty to the government”
land. Some £300million will be used to ensure cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, York and Leicester can be linked up with the HS2 high-speed rail route between London and the North.
And a further £100 million will go into local road schemes to cut congestion and unlock new sites for homes and businesses in the North.
Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon joined his Cabinet colleagues in slapping down Mr Johnson.
In a reference to the row over Mr Johnson’s comments, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson - touted as a potential successor to Mrs May - used a conference fringe event to tell her MSPs: “If any of you think of writing anything, without telling me, that is counter to current Scottish Conservative policy; you are out on your ear because nobody is unsackable.”
She said Mr Johnson had insisted that his comments had been in line with Mrs May’s policy but added: “If I was able to interpret the actions, and the thought process behind the actions of the Foreign Secretary, then I think I could make a better living doing that than I do now.”
Theresa May, above, has enjoyed the support of top Tories at conference, like Scots Secretary David Mundell, below
UNITY CALL: Philip Hammond has warned that Government disunity is harming the UK’s Brexit negotiations
Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg
Boris Johnson returns to the hall