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Johnson under fire after leadership speculation dominates Tory conference

The Chancellor sent a thinly-veiled warning to the Foreign Secretary.

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.

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First Secretary Damian Green contradicted Boris Johnson by saying Britain;s withdrawal from the EU could go a few months in either direction (David Cheskin/PA)

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.

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Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson returns to his hotel after an early morning run during the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester (Peter Byrne/PA)

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.”

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Philip Hammond denied reports that he had offered Boris Johnson his support as leader (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

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.

“The more we can show unity, the stronger our negotiating position in the EU would be,” said Mr Hammond. “David Davis is doing a great job in Brussels, but his hand would be strengthened where it is clear that he has a united Government behind him and a clear position.”

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.

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Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (Petr David Josek/AP)

“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.

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Boris Johnson (right), Philip Hammond (centre) and David Davis at Prime Minister Theresa May's speech on Florence (Jeff J Mitchell/PA)

He dismissed Mr Johnson’s “not a second more” demand as a “rhetorical flourish”.

Mr Green told a meeting on the fringe of the Manchester conference: “The phrase the Prime Minister used was ‘around two years’ but that means a few months either way.”

He added that could mean “instead of the end of March it’s the end of June” 2021 and the Government was not committing to two years “to the minute”.

And he dismissed another of Mr Johnson’s personal red lines by refusing to rule out annual payments for ongoing single market access.

Mr Hammond admitted that uncertainty over Brexit was harming the UK economy.

“One of our challenges in the UK is the short-term uncertainty that the EU exit negotiations have created, causing a pause in business investment,” he said.

“That’s the reason we want to accelerate the process, that we want to agree an interim period with the EU, so we can get some business certainty back into the environment, so businesses can start investing again and we can get our economy pulling forward.”

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 England.

Some £300 million 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.

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