Downing Street intervention marks escalation of feud between PM and former foreign secretary
Boris Johnson faced a concerted backlash over his attack on Theresa May’s Brexit plans on Monday, with a string of senior Conservatives lining up to denounce him, as the prime minister sought to save her Chequers deal from fierce internal criticism.
Downing Street delivered a rare public rebuke of the former foreign secretary, in response to Johnson’s article.
But with Westminster in a febrile mood as MPs began to arrive after the summer recess, May’s proposals looked on shaky ground with pro-Brexit Tory groups preparing to step up their campaigns to “chuck Chequers”.
The leading Brexit supporter Jacob Rees-Mogg added to the prime minister’s woes by claiming after a Brexit committee meeting with Michel Barnier that the EU’s chief negotiator agreed that the Chequers proposal was “complete rubbish”.
Before a meeting of the right-wing European Research Group on Tuesday, Brexiters claimed May now had a “very limited window” of time to row back if she wanted to avoid a humiliating Commons defeat over the final deal. The ERG is expected to publish its own alternative plans in coming weeks.
Whitehall sources insisted that May was prepared to “go into battle” to deliver on her Chequers plan, which would keep the UK in a form of single market for goods with a bespoke customs arrangement with Brussels, despite intense opposition from across her party.
The prime minister’s spokesman said: “The Chequers proposals are the only credible and negotiable plan which has been put forward and which will deliver on the will of the British people.”
Brexit secretary Dominic Raab will attempt to put the government on the front foot as he defends the government’s plans in the Commons after a summer of intense talks. No 10 is also preparing for a crunch “no deal” cabinet meeting next week.
In what was regarded at Westminster as a concerted push-back against Johnson’s attack, No 10 poured scorn on his claim that May was negotiating with Brussels with a “white flag fluttering”.
The PM’s spokesman said: “There’s no new ideas in this article to respond to. What we need at this time is serious leadership with a serious plan. That’s exactly what the country has with this prime minister and this Brexit plan.”
No 10’s intervention marks an escalation of the feud between the prime minister and her former foreign secretary, which has intensified since his attack on the government’s Brexit plans, widely viewed as a renewed push for the top job.
A string of senior Tories weighed in, with the home secretary, Sajid Javid, calling on the Tory party to unite behind May’s blueprint, pointedly adding: “For those who think there is a different way then they need to properly set out what alternatives there might be.”
Damian Green, May’s former deputy, condemned hard-Brexit supporters for having no workable plan of their own, although he conceded that May faced “a narrow path” to get her own agreed by MPs. “But it is absolutely certain that there is no parliamentary majority in the House of Commonsfor a hard Brexit,” he said.
Former Brexit secretary David Davisissued a thinly veiled swipe against Johnson when, asked if it would be better if May stood down, he said: “No, we don’t need any more turbulence right now. What matters in all of this is not the personality politics, it’s the outcome at the end.”
However, Johnson was backed by Tory Brexiters Steve Baker, who described his article as “superb”, and Owen Patterson, who said it offered a clear articulation of the “myths” surrounding the Irish border.
Some high-profile remainers are also unhappy with the Chequers proposal, with former cabinet minister Justine Greening describing it as “more unpopular than the poll tax”. She said: “Chequers is now dead.”
Several Brexit-supporting sources confirmed that political strategist Sir Lynton Crosby was working with the ERG on a wider campaign against Chequers. “Lynton has offered some assistance to the ERG because the key battle is in parliament,” one said.