Theresa May distances herself from Boris Johnson’s EU claims

Johnson wrote essay reopening Leave campaign’s claims of freeing up £350m a week

Prime minister Theresa May with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau at a ceremony in Ottawa. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Prime minister Theresa May with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau at a ceremony in Ottawa. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

 

Theresa May has attempted to reassert her authority over Brexit, insisting that her government is united and distancing herself from Boris Johnson’s claim that leaving the European Union would free up £350 million a week. Speaking in Ottawa during a joint press conference with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, Ms May referred to claims that the foreign secretary was acting as a backseat driver.

“The UK government is driven from the front, and we all have the same destination in our sights. And that is getting a good deal for Brexit with the European Union. That’s a good trade deal, but also a good ongoing relationship in relation to other matters like security,” she said.

Mr Johnson, who was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, sought to play down the cabinet rift exposed by his 4,000-word essay on Brexit in the Daily Telegraph last Saturday. In the article he revived the Vote Leave campaign’s claim that leaving the EU would free up £350 million a week to spend on the health service and said Britain should not pay for access to the single market after Brexit.

Mr Johnson said that the prime minister was the only driver of Britain’s strategy and claimed he was only trying to sketch out “the incredibly exciting landscape of the destination ahead” after Brexit.

“We do not want to be paying extortionate sums for access to the single market. They would not pay us access to our market. What we will do, and everyone understand this, so far as we are on the hook for stuff in the short term that we have agreed to, that is fair enough. I have never objected to that,” he said.

Gove’s backing

Although Mr Johnson drew criticism from senior cabinet colleagues and the head of Britain’s statistics agency, he won support on Monday from prominent Brexiteers, including environment secretary Michael Gove, former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith and former minister John Redwood. Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s campaign director, also backed the foreign secretary, condemning the government’s handling of the negotiations as a shambles.

Before the prime minister arrived in Canada, the government announced that Oliver Robbins was leaving his post as head of the department for exiting the European Union. Mr Robbins will retain his position as the top official in Britain’s negotiating team with the EU and the prime minister’s sherpa in the negotiations. Ms May rejected a suggestion that it was evidence of chaos in her planning for Brexit.

“What it is a sign of is that the negotiations are getting into a more detailed and more intense phase,” she said. “As a result of that, I think it’s right that Olly Robbins concentrates on that, and obviously a different structure will be put in place in terms of the running of the management of the department for exiting the European Union.”