Theresa May’s rift with Boris Johnson over Brexit has appeared to deepen, as she dismissed his claim that up to £350m a week could be freed up to spend on the NHS after Brexit; while the foreign secretary began musing openly about life outside government.
Speaking to journalists on Monday on a flight to Canada, the prime minister sought to reassert her authority over the foreign secretary, saying: “This government is driven from the front, and we’re all going to the same destination.”
May used a metaphor previously employed by home secretary Amber Rudd who had accused Johnson of “backseat driving”, after he used a 4,000-word article in the Daily Telegraph to repeat the controversial claim that £350m a week could be spent on the NHS by leaving the European Union, and set out his personal vision for Brexit.
The prime minister stopped short of condemning Johnson directly, saying only: “Boris is Boris”. But privately, No 10 was exasperated by Johnson’s piece, which was not cleared in advance and came as May prepares to deliver a major speech on Brexit in Florence on Friday. It was widely read at Westminster as a challenge to the prime minister’s authority.
Johnson, who was in New York – where he will be joined by May for the UN general assembly on Tuesday, insisted he backed the prime minister’s approach. “As far as backseat driving honestly there is only one driver in this car and it is Theresa,” he said.
But the foreign secretary also doubled down on his insistence that the UK must not pay for access to the single market after a transition period is over a few days before May is due to give a speech on Brexit policy on Friday – and even appeared to speculate about his own future.
“We do not want to be paying extortionate sums for access to the single market,” he said. “They would not pay us access to our market.”
The foreign secretary was rebuked by the statistics watchdog David Norgrove on Sunday, after reusing the £350m figure that was emblazoned on the side of Vote Leave’s red battlebus during last year’s referendum campaign.
When asked by the BBC’s James Landale if he would resign after the embarrassing spat, he said: “I think you may be barking up the wrong tree.” Johnson added: “Let us not try and find rows where there are really not rows.
“When the burden of office is lifted from my shoulders I will of course look back with great pride on my time doing all sorts of things.”
Earlier, the prime minister rejected her foreign secretary’s claim that up to £350m a week could be released to spend on other priorities after Brexit, and should be earmarked for the health service. When pressed on whether the NHS should be the top priority for any additional funds available after Brexit, she insisted: “That will be a decision that will be taken at the time, and will be taken by the government.”
However, Johnson appeared to be picking up support from fellow hardline Brexiters on Monday, while centrist Tories suspected a concerted bid to influence the prime minister ahead of her speech, due to be made in Florence.
His cabinet colleague Michael Gove, who led the Vote Leave campaign with Johnson, broke cover on Monday with two tweets tentatively supporting Johnson’s case.
“In the debate on EU contributions it’s important people look at what Boris actually wrote in his Telegraph article – not headlines,” he tweeted. “Debate should be forward looking on how to make most of life outside EU – not refighting referendum.”
The headline of the Telegraph article read: “Boris: Yes, we will take £350m back for the NHS.” The article itself was slightly more carefully worded, stopping short of pledging the whole amount to the NHS, in contrast with the Vote Leave campaign, which suggested: “We send £350m a week to the EU. Let’s fund our NHS instead.”
Gove’s tweets were read at Westminster as a public sign that the Vote Leave leaders are mobilising to defend the principles of their successful campaign. It also suggested the pair have partially reconciled after Gove scuppered Johnson’s chances of succeeding David Cameron by launching a rival bid for the Conservative leadership after the referendum last year.
Iain Duncan Smith, John Redwood, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries also all voiced their support for Johnson.
Dominic Cummings, the former director of the group and former aide to Gove, fuelled speculation of a fightback by former Vote Leave campaigners on Monday as he released a string of tweets arguing that David Davis, the Brexit secretary, and Philip Hammond, the chancellor, were steering Brexit in the wrong direction.
He said it was wrong to assume that May, Hammond, Davis and Johnson have agreed a strategy on what Brexit will look like after the transitional period, which is “why the speech is being fought over”.
But one Tory politician on the opposite wing of the party said: “There is now real concern among people like me that May will pull back from moving towards a sensible Brexit in her speech on Friday. Boris’s intervention has put her in an impossible position. The Brexiteers are trying to box her into a corner and make her promise to deliver an undeliverable Brexit.
“There is particular nervousness that voters have seen through Boris but he could still capture the Conservative party membership. It looks like the PM will have to meet Boris in New York and hammer out what will be acceptable to him. I suspect she’s going to try to strike a middle course.”
In her speech in Italy, May is expected to try to bring renewed impetus to the Brexit talks in Brussels, which are due to resume later this month, by setting out more details of a potential transitional arrangement.
She repeatedly said on Monday that Davis was “doing great work” in the talks, during which he has clashed publicly with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.
May was speaking en route to a bilateral meeting with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa. The pair gave a joint press conference, at which Trudeau underlined the fact that Canada is ready to begin discussing a potential future trading deal with the UK based on CETA – the widereaching Canada-EU agreement that comes into force later this week.
“We are going to make sure that the relationship between Canada and the UK stays as strong as it always has been and continues to stay stronger with a seamless transition,” he said.
While the most public aspect of the cabinet row is the £350m a week claim, there is a deeper dispute about Britain’s future relationship with the EU once a transition deal is over. Some Brexiters are concerned about the prospect of a so-called “Norway minus” deal, which could leave the UK as a “rule-taker”, bound by EU rulings. They would like to see Canada’s trade deal with the EU used as a template instead.
May and Trudeau also said they would raise the issue of Bombardier, the manufacturing firm locked in a bitter trade dispute with US firm Boeing, with Donald Trump later in the week.
Trudeau went further, saying Canada would refuse to buy Boeing products while the dispute, which concerns allegations that Bombardier was unfairly subsidised by the Canadian government, is underway.