Theresa May claims ‘united’ Cabinet despite Brexit feuding
The Prime Minister is coming under pressure to sack Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson over his outspoken views on leaving the EU.
Theresa May has insisted the Cabinet is “united” behind her, despite renewed feuding over Brexit as the Conservatives’ annual conference opens in Manchester.
The gathering has already seen an incendiary intervention by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who laid down a raft of red lines for EU withdrawal including an insistence that a transition phase must not last “a second more” than two years.
The Prime Minister sidestepped the question of whether Mr Johnson was “unsackable” in a high-profile TV interview, saying only that the Foreign Secretary was “absolutely behind” the plan for Brexit which she set out in a speech in the Italian city of Florence last week.
Mrs May told BBC 1’s Andrew Marr Show: “Boris is absolutely behind the Florence speech and the line that we have taken. What Boris is saying is the importance of the approach we have taken in the Florence speech. That has moved the discussion on and created a momentum in the negotiations.”
However, First Secretary of State Damian Green appeared to deliver a thinly-veiled rebuke to Mr Johnson over his public outspokenness on Brexit.
In a pointed intervention, Mr Green called on ministers to make their policy pitches in private.
He told Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics: “I am happy to make a general point that it is understandable that any group of politicians faced with a big issue will have a range of views.
“It is extremely sensible when you are in Government to express those views in private rather than public.
“It’s advice for everyone. It’s advice for all my colleagues at all times. That if you feel strongly about something then make your pitch in private.
“And then, when the Government has come to a collective decision, stick to it.”
As well as his Brexit demands, Mr Johnson sparked fury among some Conservatives by participating in a Channel 4 documentary due to air on Sunday in which a friend is reported to have said he believes Mrs May has “a year at most” to remain in Downing Street.
Mrs May, who celebrates her 61st birthday on Sunday, made it clear she intends to remain in power.
She told the Sunday Telegraph: “I will fight the next election. I’m not a quitter, I’m in it for the long term and I believe there is a long-term job to do.”
Communities Secretary Sajid Javid insisted he backed the PM to lead the Tories into the next election despite previously dodging the question in a newspaper interview.
But former party chairman Grant Shapps said there was no way Mrs May could take the party into electoral battle again.
He told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “The reality is that every serious person, every serious MP, every commentator knows she can’t lead us into the next election. Of course she can’t.”
Mr Shapps said the PM cannot sack Mr Johnson because “putting him on the outside would put her entire premiership in instant peril”.
Mrs May said she plans to say sorry to activists for the party’s performance in the snap election she called earlier this year, when she addresses the Conservatives’ national convention on its opening day.
But asked whether her decision to call the poll three years early was a “mistake”, she told the BBC: “No. Is it ever a mistake to give people the opportunity to vote? I don’t think so.”
Mrs May kicked off the conference with a concerted push for the youth vote featuring a university tuition fee freeze and a £10 billion boost for first time buyers.
Attempting to shift the focus from Brexit to a good news domestic agenda, Mrs May announced that tuition fees will be frozen at the current £9,250 level until 2019, rather than increase with inflation by £250.
Under Mrs May’s plans, the amount graduates can earn before making student loan repayments will also rise from £21,000 to £25,000.
The figure will then increase in line with earnings after next year, with the Tories saying the package will produce a saving of £360 in 2018/19 for graduates earning at least £25,000.
Critics of the reforms have pointed out that the changes will still leave students tens of thousands of pounds in debt and the change to repayment thresholds will save graduates around £1 a day.
In a bid to help young people get on the housing ladder, Chancellor Philip Hammond is announcing a £10 billion expansion of the Help to Buy: Equity Loan scheme in order to aid 135,000 new purchasers.
Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke said he believed Mrs May can lead the Tories into the next election.
Mr Gauke told a meeting hosted by Huffington Post on the fringe of the Conservative conference in Manchester: “I think she should because if she can deliver on her domestic agenda, if she can deliver the Brexit she is seeking to deliver, she will have a really excellent record .
“In those circumstances, I think she would be a very, very formidable candidate in the general election.”
On Mr Johnson’s interventions, Mr Gauke said: “I think it is for Boris to determine how much he wants to say. He is a big figure.”
Asked if Mrs May should sack her Foreign Secretary, he replied: “It’s not for me to determine these things. We all serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister.”
May: “New, deep and special partnership between the UK and the EU.” Words cost nothing, but they don’t secure livelihoods.— Tom Brake (@thomasbrake) September 29, 2017
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: “If Theresa May is now too weak to slap down the ever more erratic Boris Johnson, it shows she has gone from being a lame-duck Prime Minister to a sitting-duck Prime Minister.
“Make no mistake – Boris Johnson is now driving the car. For the British people trapped in the back, this is a terrifying prospect.
“He might find it fun hurtling toward the cliff shouting ‘Cripes!’, but this threatens to crash the UK economy and blunt the life chances of future generations.”
A poll of 2,000 voters by BMG for the Huffington Post found that 59% want Mrs May to step down immediately and 64% feel she should go before the next election.
But just 12% of Conservative voters said Mrs May should step down now, with 59% of Tories saying she should stay on until after Brexit or until the transition period was over.
Asked if Mr Johnson was unsackable, immigration minister Brandon Lewis told Channel 4 News: “The reality is that the Prime Minister appoints us, so we all serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister.”
Mr Lewis said the Foreign Secretary had been “quite clear” in public that he backed Mrs May’s approach to Brexit as set out in her Florence speech, adding: “I think if you look at the generality of what Boris is saying, it is absolutely in line with what the Prime Minister says.”