Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond left yesterday’s marathon special Cabinet meeting side by side in a carefully choreographed display of unity
Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond left yesterday’s marathon special Cabinet meeting side by side in a carefully choreographed display of unity.
Smiling for the battery of cameras outside No 10, the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor even exchanged a few words, giving every appearance of being good friends or at least amiable colleagues.
They’re not. They continue to loathe each other.
The photo opportunity, dreamed up no doubt by government spin doctors after a riotous week of Tory in-fighting, chaos, rumours of sackings, resignations and leadership bids, should fool no one.
Johnson and Hammond have been at war for the past 12 months over the terms of our exit from the EU, and that hasn’t changed.
During the two-and-a-half-hour Cabinet meeting to discuss the Prime Minister’s keynote speech on the EU – to be delivered in Florence today – the bitter row triggered by Johnson’s passionately argued 4,200-word manifesto in The Daily Telegraph last week for a clean Brexit, with no ‘divorce payment’, was virtually ignored.
In her opening remarks, Mrs May made only a glancing reference to the need for ministers to be more cautious about what they said in public.
She and Johnson had already kissed and made up on the seven-hour flight back from New York, where they had been attending the United Nations General Assembly.
The Foreign Secretary has now accepted a two-year transition deal costing £20 billion, if it leads to a complete break with the EU.
Johnson and Hammond (pictured at a Tory party conference) have been at war for the past 12 months – and they continue to loathe each other
Mrs May and Johnson (pictured together) had already kissed and made up on the seven-hour flight back from UN summit in New York
David Davis, the Brexit Secretary who like Mrs May and the rest of the Cabinet, learned of Johnson’s article just minutes before publication, spoke after the PM. ‘He was a model of geniality,’ said one source. ‘But we know he was secretly still seething with Boris. His article suggests to the EU that he can’t deliver a united Cabinet, let alone a united Parliament when negotiating a deal.’
And as for the Chancellor? He was conspicuously on message with Mrs May, racing through his comments on her speech. But no doubt he was seething, too.
In the immediate aftermath of publication, Johnson’s manifesto was reported as a direct challenge to the authority of the Prime Minister ahead of today’s speech.
In fact, what Johnson was doing was pointing his heavy artillery at Hammond and the Treasury, who he believes are deliberately talking down the advantages of Brexit.
‘It’s quite wrong to think it was an attack on the PM,’ a source close to Johnson told me. ‘Boris was aiming at the ghost of George Osborne [the former Chancellor, fervent Remainer and chief architect of ‘Project Fear’], whose spirit of doom and gloom still stalks every corridor and every meeting room at the Treasury.’
Conor Burns said it was long overdue for a minister to make the positive case for Brexit
Conor Burns, the Tory MP who is Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary, said it was long overdue for a minister to make the positive case for Brexit – and Boris was the man to make it. He added: ‘The Foreign Secretary is one of those rare politicians whose reach is huge, whose spirit is irrepressible and who has optimism built into his DNA.
‘It is no understatement to say that if pessimism were a disease, Boris Johnson would be immune. Like so many of us who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU last year, he doesn’t just respect the referendum result; he welcomes and embraces it.’ Those were carefully chosen words and a less-than-subtle criticism of Hammond, a Remainer who prefers a business-friendly, softer Brexit, with Britain staying close to the single market.
Burns perhaps also had in mind Home Secretary Amber Rudd, another Remainer who backs the Chancellor’s vision of Brexit. But while Hammond kept his counsel this week, Rudd has been a damning critic of Johnson, accusing him of being a ‘back-seat driver’.
In a carefully timed intervention yesterday, Mrs May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy took aim at the Treasury, which ‘never even mentions the positives of leaving the EU’. Downing Street was alerted in advance of what Timothy was going to say.
Feelings are still running high. A second Treasury source remained scathing of Johnson.
‘He’s self-indulgent and divisive, and this was all about him trying to prove he still matters. He’s made a fool of himself, May hasn’t watered down her plans [following Johnson’s intervention], and she should have sacked him.’
This sorry episode of Cabinet in-fighting had, in truth, been weeks in the making. The seeds were sown last month when Johnson was the subject of a blistering attack by a columnist in the Remain-supporting Times newspaper.
Mrs May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy (right) took aim at the Treasury, which ‘never even mentions the positives of leaving the EU’
‘Not a single foreign minister in Europe takes him seriously. He leaks information given to him confidentially by other governments,’ the well-sourced and hugely damaging article claimed.
Johnson was variously considered by EU states as being ‘totally unreliable’, a ‘liar’ and ‘dangerous’, it said. Boris was livid and proposed to answer his critics with his own keynote speech on Brexit. But Downing Street told him to delay it.
The official reason was that it would disrupt the Government’s painstakingly prepared grid of daily political initiatives. But the truth is more that No 10 feared Johnson would steal Mrs May’s thunder ahead of her appearances at the UN in New York and her speech in Florence.
‘The only way Theresa can rebuild her reputation after the general election shambles is on the international stage,’ one supporter told me. ‘Having lost her parliamentary majority, it’s almost impossible to be radical on domestic issues.
‘She is trying to project herself as an international stateswoman.’
But Johnson was still fuming, at both the personal attack in The Times, and Downing Street’s refusal to let him respond.
So he handed the script of a speech to the Telegraph, where he used to be a columnist. In the fallout, Mrs May was urged to sack Johnson. It was also widely reported that Johnson would quit if Mrs May did not adopt his vision of Brexit.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Johnson never contemplated resigning.
‘The reports he would quit were risible,’ said one source. ‘It was black propaganda put out by Johnson’s enemies to make him look less stable.’
That plan has certainly backfired. Johnson will appear alongside the Prime Minister and the Chancellor today when she makes her speech in Florence. Their double act is a clear sign he’s not planning to quit. In another significant development, it seems Environment Secretary Michael Gove has rediscovered his admiration for Johnson. Having been reported incorrectly as being ‘hostile’ to Johnson’s article, he subsequently tweeted his support. ‘Debate should be forward-looking on how to make most of life outside EU,’ he said.
It was also widely reported that Johnson would quit if Mrs May did not adopt his vision of Brexit, but nothing could be further from the truth
Gove has told friends he will work with Johnson to secure the best Brexit deal.
The Cabinet colleagues spoke at length on the telephone this week in the clearest sign that they have buried their differences, after Gove withdrew his support at the 11th hour for Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign last summer.
‘They want the same Brexit, and not a half-in-half-out Brexit, which is what Hammond wants by paying for us to remain in the single market,’ a friend said. ‘A Brexit which means Britain can pass its own laws and not be bossed around any more by the EU. Michael and Boris share that vision.’
Johnson’s appearance at the Tory party conference in Manchester next month will be even more keenly awaited than usual.
Much will depend on it. A poll on the ConservativeHome website this month of which minister party members want to be their next leader had Johnson relegated into fourth place. Jacob-Rees Mogg, dubbed the ‘MP for the 17th century’, was first on 23 per cent to Johnson’s 7 per cent.
Perhaps now, after his dramatic intervention in the Brexit debate, the Foreign Secretary – one-time darling of the Tory faithful – will be hoping he’ll be back at the top of the table.