Boris Johnson accused of backseat driving as he revives £350m Brexit claim

Foreign secretary’s ‘Telegraph’ article seen as challenge to PM’s authority

Boris Johnson and Theresa May in 2016: the UK foreign secretary has said little about Brexit since the referendum. Photograph: Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty

Boris Johnson and Theresa May in 2016: the UK foreign secretary has said little about Brexit since the referendum. Photograph: Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty

 

Senior ministers have accused Boris Johnson of backseat driving over Brexit after he warned against any deal that would involve paying the European Union for access to the single market. And the head of the UK’s statistical agency criticised the foreign secretary for reviving the referendum campaign’s claim that the country would claw back £350 million a week after leaving the EU.

The home secretary, Amber Rudd, said she had not read Mr Johnson’s 4,000-word article in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph, but she criticised its timing, hours after a terrorist attack in London and a week before Theresa May makes a major speech on Brexit in Florence.

“You could call it back-seat driving, absolutely,” Ms Rudd told the BBC’s Andrew Marr. “I don’t want him managing the Brexit process. What we have got is Theresa May managing the process, driving the car. I am going to make sure, as far as I and the rest of the cabinet is concerned, we help her do that.”

The first secretary, Damian Green, Ms May’s de-facto deputy prime minister, echoed the home secretary’s criticism of Mr Johnson’s timing but insisted the cabinet was united behind the prime minister’s Brexit strategy.

“There is a huge challenge facing this country that we have got to get these negotiations right,” he said. “Whatever we said during the referendum campaign, whichever side we were on, the duty of everyone in government is to make sure we get the best deal for Britain.”

Leadership bid

The foreign secretary’s Telegraph article, setting out his vision for a “bold, thriving Britain enabled by Brexit”, is viewed in Westminster as a challenge to the prime minister’s authority and possibly the start of a bid for the Conservative leadership. Mr Johnson, who has said little about Brexit since the referendum, in June 2016, revived the Leave campaign’s inaccurate claim about how much the UK contributes to the EU budget.

“Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350 million per week,” he wrote. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS, provided we use that cash injection to modernise and make the most of new technology.”

David Norgrove, chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, wrote to Mr Johnson, accusing him of a “clear misuse of official statistics” by quoting the figure, which does not take account of the United Kingdom’s EU budget rebate or money returned to it through spending programmes.

“I am surprised and disappointed that you have chosen to repeat the figure of £350m per week, in connection with the amount that might be available for extra public spending when we leave the European Union,” Mr Norgrove said.

“This confuses gross and net contributions. It also assumes that payments currently made to the UK by the EU, including for example for the support of agriculture and scientific research, will not be paid by the UK government when we leave. It is a clear misuse of official statistics.”

Mr Johnson’s spokesman said on Sunday that Mr Norgrove told the foreign secretary in a subsequent telephone conversation that his criticism was confined to the headline of the Telegraph article rather than the piece itself. A spokesman for Mr Norgrove said, however, that the statistics-authority head had not changed the conclusion set out in his letter to Mr Johnson. “Sir David Norgrove does not believe that the issues lie solely with the headline,” the spokesman said.