British government ‘a nest of singing birds’, says Boris Johnson

Foreign secretary rejects talk of split as May calls cabinet meeting for major Brexit speech

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson arrives at a meeting during the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Monday. Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Reuters

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson arrives at a meeting during the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Monday. Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Reuters

 

Theresa May has called a special cabinet meeting on Thursday to discuss the final draft of her speech on Brexit in Florence the following day and to seek their approval for it. Downing Street said on Tuesday that the prime minister expects Boris Johnson to remain as foreign secretary after the speech and he insisted that he would not resign.

Speaking to reporters in New York, where he and the prime minister are attending the United Nations General Assembly, Mr Johnson denied that the cabinet was split over Brexit.

“No, we are a government working together, we are a nest of singing birds,” he said.

“We are working together, that is the key thing, to make sure that Britain can take advantage of the opportunities of Brexit.”

The foreign secretary last Saturday published a 4,000-word blueprint for Brexit which argued that Britain should not pay the EU for access to the single market and repeated the Leave campaign’s inaccurate claim that leaving the EU would free up £350 million a week. The article triggered speculation that Mr Johnson would resign if the prime minister’s Florence speech promised too close a relationship with the EU after Brexit.

Ms May on Tuesday dismissed suggestions of a cabinet split and expressed confidence that ministers would back her ahead of Friday’s speech.

“The cabinet is absolutely clear about the destination we are aiming for in relation to our European negotiations. We want to make sure we get the best possible deal for the United Kingdom as we leave the European Union, ” she told Sky News.

“What we want to do is to ensure not just a good deal on trade, but also on our future security and relationship on law enforcement and criminal justice.”

Praise and criticism

Mr Johnson’s intervention in the Brexit debate, which some MPs perceive as the prelude to a leadership bid, has won praise from some Brexiteers in the Conservative party. But former chancellor Ken Clarke said that in normal circumstances, the foreign secretary would be sacked but that Ms May was too weak to move against him.

“Sounding off personally in this way is totally unhelpful, and he should not exploit the fact that she has not got a majority in parliament and he knows perfectly well that, although normally a foreign secretary would be sacked for doing that, she unfortunately after the general election is not in a position to sack him,” Mr Clarke said.

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable told his party’s annual conference that Brexit was the product of “a fraudulent and frivolous campaign led by two groups of silly public schoolboys” reliving their dormitory pillow fights.

“And now, thanks to Boris Johnson, they have degenerated into a full-scale school riot with the head teacher hiding, barricaded in her office. In the real world, we have yet to experience the full impact of leaving Europe. But we have a taste of what is to come in the fall of the value of the pound. Foreign exchange dealers are not point-scoring politicians. Their cold, hard, unsentimental judgment has been, quite simply, that Brexit Britain will be poorer and weaker after Brexit than if we had decided to stay in Europe,” he said.

The first ministers of Scotland and Wales on Tuesday urged Ms May to work with the devolved administrations to prepare for Brexit. Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones said in a letter to the prime minister that the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill would need substantial amendments before they could recommend that their assemblies give it their consent.

The Scottish and Welsh governments have described the Bill as a Westminster power grab which would centralise powers that are currently devolved.