The Guardian

Ministers defend PM as No 10 downplays rift with Treasury

- Jessica Elgot Heather Stewart

Cabinet ministers rowed in behind Boris Johnson yesterday, after a torrid three weeks at Westminste­r, as Downing Street sought to play down divisions between No 10 and the Treasury.

Johnson’s spokespers­on rebuffed widespread reports of a split between the prime minister and his chancellor Rishi Sunak, while cabinet ministers told the Guardian counterbri­efings were irritating colleagues. Johnson has suffered a tumultuous three weeks since spearheadi­ng the botched attempt to protect the disgraced MP Owen Paterson, culminatin­g in scores of Conservati­ve backbenche­rs declining to back the government’s social care plans.

But two cabinet ministers defended Johnson yesterday and said key pledges on transport and social care were being broadly well received by business, though one warned of the need to stop “unforced errors” becoming a pattern.

Johnson was cheered by his own MPs at the start of his appearance at PMQs, after a turbulent three-week period that included several backbench rebellions and some senior Tories expressing concern about his grip on government. Party sources said they believed that although polls had been showing declining support, the Conservati­ve vote was holding up well in Bexley and Old Sidcup, one of the by-elections next week, while the other in Sir David Amess’s former seat of Southend West is not being contested by mainstream parties.

“At the moment we are very much in the mindset that there have been individual bumps and scrapes which have not taken the whole thing off course,” one cabinet minister said. Asked about splits with No 11, they said: “There is a tendency to panic among people who do not quite understand the PM and his appeal.

“No one likes unforced errors but there is no need to make it a crisis. Ultimately what people see is a prime minister who is doing something about social care for the first time in decades.”

The minister said that a show of support for the PM by MPs in the Commons showed that dissenters – including those who have reportedly sent in letters of no confidence – were out of touch.

“You can see people feel the PM is being unfairly treated. Look at PMQs, the boys and girls turned out and made a lot of noise for him. This is nothing like how it was when Theresa May was on her last legs.”

Another loyal cabinet minister dismissed the idea of Johnson losing his political touch as “all overblown”. They suggested Johnson’s fumbling with his CBI speech may have resulted from an aide handing him the pages in the wrong order, adding that Johnson “isn’t the kind of person who would blame someone”.

Asked if the prime minister was upset the Treasury was briefing against him, Johnson’s press secretary said: “I’m not going to get into anonymous source quotes. The prime minister and the entire government are focused on delivering people’s priorities.”

Pressed further on how she would characteri­se the relationsh­ip between No 10 and the Treasury at the moment, Johnson’s press secretary said: “I have seen various anonymous source quotes that I am not going to go into but the prime minister, the chancellor and the entire government is focused simply on delivering people’s priorities. We’ve got an incredibly ambitious agenda and that is what we are focused on.”

During their exchange in the Commons, Starmer ribbed him about the disquiet of Tory MPs, asking: “Who knows if he’ll make it to the next election?” At another point, he quipped: “I think he’s lost his place in his notes again,” referring to Johnson’s rambling CBI speech on Monday.

“Is everything OK, prime minister?” the Labour leader added, prompting the prime minister to reply: “I tell you what is not working, is that line of attack,” to noisy cheers from his backbenche­rs.

Earlier yesterday, the justice secretary Dominic Raab also praised the prime minister, as well as defending his advisers, whom several sources have accused of failing to stand up to the PM.

He said the prime minister was “focused on the job at hand”, and was an “ebullient, bouncy, optimistic, Tiggerish character and he livens up his speeches in a way that few politician­s past and present have done, but actually there is a steeliness to him as a prime minister and indeed his team, and we work as a team”.

 ?? PHOTOGRAPH: DAN KITWOOD/PA ?? ▼ Downing Street has rebuffed reports of a split between Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak
PHOTOGRAPH: DAN KITWOOD/PA ▼ Downing Street has rebuffed reports of a split between Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom