British PM Theresa May faces Tory fire over Brexit as Hammond attacks Boris Johnson

PM Theresa May faces the battle of her political life to retain control of the governing Conservative Party, with Boris Johnson going for the jugular and Philip Hammond sweeping in to defend her

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 October, 2018, 7:40am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2018, 7:40am

Prime Minister Theresa May faced the battle of her political life to retain control of the governing Conservative Party as top Tory politicians undermined her leadership at the first day of her party’s annual conference in Birmingham on Sunday.

After arch rival Boris Johnson went for the jugular, Chancellor Philip Hammond swept in to defend her in an increasingly chaotic political scene.

May arrived at her party’s annual conference in Birmingham needing to reassert her authority and to convince Tories to back her blueprint for Britain’s departure from the European Union. Johnson, her top diplomat until three months ago, called her plan “deranged.”

The next few days will be critical, and her political opponents have an advantage that she doesn’t address delegates herself until Wednesday.

May’s proposal to keep close to the EU’s single market in goods –- which would establish a new free trade area with Britain – has been bluntly rejected by European leaders, and is under attack from Eurosceptic Tories led by Johnson who want a quick, clean split from the bloc.

Johnson has been criticising May’s so-called Chequers plan for months, but he turned it personal in an interview with The Sunday Times. Her idea to require Britain and the EU to collect each other’s tariffs was “entirely preposterous,” he said.

Unlike the prime minister I fought for this, I believe in it
Boris Johnson

“Unlike the prime minister I fought for this, I believe in it,” Johnson said. “I think it’s the right thing for our country and I think that what is happening now is, alas, not what people were promised in 2016.”

It wasn’t just May coming under fire. Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, former Brexit Minister Steve Baker said May’s blueprint – the reason why he quit the government – is the product of “excessive political influence” by the country’s biggest business lobby, the Confederation of British Industry.

“The CBI is a grave menace to the political stability and economic prospects of the UK,” Baker wrote. “The voice of business should be heard. Companies are entitled to seek minimal interruption to commerce and, as the party of free enterprise, Conservatives should listen. But the CBI is not that voice.’’

May has her cheerleaders. Earlier in the day Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, told the BBD that “in terms of a period of silence, I would be very welcoming of one.”

Ahead of his speech on Monday, Hammond got uncharacteristically personal – against Johnson. He predicted the former London mayor would fail in a leadership bid.

Hammond mocked Johnson’s cut-glass British accent and accused the former foreign secretary of being unable to grasp details, in an interview published on Sunday night with The Daily Mail newspaper.

He defended May’s Brexit negotiating approach, while arguing Johnson’s own plan would never work because it would split Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain, which could in turn prompt demands from Scotland for a hard border there.

Business Secretary Greg Clark rejected both a no-deal Brexit and the kind of Canada-style free-trade deal being pushed by Johnson, and said he’s confident the party will ultimately back an agreement modelled on May’s blueprint.

“No deal is something that wouldn’t be in the interests of either side, and Canada wouldn’t achieve our objectives: we’ve got to be tenacious about this,” Clark said Sunday. “It was totally predictable that this would be the time when breakthroughs would be made and agreements would be forged, and that is what I think will happen in the weeks ahead.”

Even so, Clark said businesses “need to prepare for all eventualities.” He also dismissed the notion of Tories backing a potential leadership bid by Johnson: “I don’t see any appetite for that kind of division. Quite the reverse.”

A potential dark horse in a future leadership race, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt got the tone of his keynote speech just right on Sunday.

There was a joke at his predecessor Johnson’s expense. But it was a harmless one: “I walked up the Grand Staircase in the Foreign Office and looked at the pictures of my distinguished predecessors gazing down from the wall. One of the recent ones seemed to have forgotten to comb his blond hair.”

He also referenced past leaders Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchills.

But the most important takeaway was on Brexit, which despite being a relatively recent convert to the cause, Hunt navigated without sounding treasonous. Taking a crack at the French for being mean captured the current Tory zeitgeist, as did his comparison of the EU with the Soviet Union that “stopped people leaving.”

“Never mistake British politeness for British weakness … Because if you put a country like Britain in a corner, we don’t crumble. We fight.”