Kenneth Clarke today launched a scathing attack on Boris Johnson for making “dishonest” claims and “self-publicising” at the expense of government unity.
The former chancellor said: “All this ‘If you jump off a cliff and spread your arms you’ll find yourself flying into the blue yonder’ — that’s not a policy.”
He said that “in any normal circumstances” the Foreign Secretary would be fired for publishing a 4,200-word article pressing for a hard Brexit. However, he said Theresa May was too weakened by her general election disaster.
“He knows perfectly well that normally the Foreign Secretary would be sacked for doing that — and she, unfortunately, after the general election, is not in the position easily to sack him, which he should stop exploiting.”
No 10 sources have said a Cabinet session will be held on Thursday to attempt to reach a Brexit policy that Mrs May can announce in a key speech in Italy.
Mr Johnson may meet Mrs May this afternoon in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The Standard yesterday revealed that he was willing to quit Cabinet because he felt so strongly. Later, asked if he might resign, Mr Johnson said only: “You may be barking slightly up the wrong tree here.”
Mrs May tried to stamp her authority by giving reporters a firm declaration: “This government is driven from the front.” Mr Johnson defied her by hitting the airwaves and attacking “extortionate” demands for payments by the EU.
Friends of the Foreign Secretary say he has spoken out to pre-empt Mrs May’s speech, alleging that she had waited until he was out of the country before joining Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd in a bid to shift government policy behind a softer version of Brexit. In it, Britain would have a transition deal of up to two years to protect jobs and growth, during which the UK could continue to make payments to the EU.
The rift in Cabinet is between soft Brexiteers who want a deal that would include payments to the EU, and those such as Mr Johnson and Michael Gove who prefer a free trade agreement similar to that enjoyed by Canada. Mrs May insists she can get a bespoke deal.
Former foreign secretary Lord Hague today used an article in the Daily Telegraph to warn that senior ministers “lack co-ordination” on Brexit and are courting election defeat. He wrote: “It is now 15 months since the referendum, and high time that all members of the Government were able to express themselves on this subject in the same way as each other, putting forward the same points, as part of an agreed plan.
“Hopefully, that happy circumstance will follow the speech the prime minister is due to give on the subject in Florence on Friday. If not, there will be no point in Conservatives discussing who is going to be the foreign secretary, chancellor or prime minister in the coming years, because Jeremy Corbyn will be prime minister, sitting in No 10 with John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, completely ruining this country.”