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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Tory MPs call for Boris Johnson’s head after breach of party unity

The foreign secretary’s article in a newspaper has exposed fissures within the Conservatives

Boris Johnson has raised hackles in the Tory party with what people are seeing as his naked political ambition. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins
Boris Johnson has raised hackles in the Tory party with what people are seeing as his naked political ambition. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

Boris Johnson’s future as the British foreign secretary came into question this weekend as furious Tory MPs demanded his sacking for breaking cabinet unity and appearing to set out his own policy programme for the country’s exit from the European Union.

Prime minister Theresa May was being described as “too weak” for not moving against Mr Johnson, who on Saturday morning used an article in the Daily Telegraph newspaper to launch what many political insiders were calling a de facto bid for the leadership of the Conservative party.

The foreign secretary’s personal vision, which he set out in the newspaper that he used to work for and still writes columns for, had not been shown to the prime minister before it was printed and it is widely seen that Mr Johnson was breaking ranks from cabinet responsibility, which demands that ministers do not criticise policies or legislation that have been agreed collectively.

In his Telegraph column, which was reinforced by commentators from the newspaper urging Mr Johnson to run for the leadership of his party and the country, he said the country shoukd not pay anything to the EU for access to its markets after Brexit, and repeated contentious arguments that leaving the union would free up £350m for the cash-=strapped National Health Service.

Mr Johnson has laid bare the fissures at the heart of the Conservative party’s debates about Europe. One MP told The Observer that Mr Johnson “was deliberately tempting May to sack him but the awful thing is that she is too pathetically weak to do so. So we have a cabinet openly at war on the most important issue of the day and that is what we have to live with.”

Another Tory MP, a former minister, told the newspaper that it was “blindingly obvious” the PM should dismiss him. “It is completely disgraceful. You do not write an article like that without consulting the prime minister and your cabinet colleagues. It is a complete abdication of cabinet responsibility. This is all about Mr Johnson, Mr Johnson, Mr Johnson, not about the interests of government or the country.”

The former minister accepted that Mrs May didn’t have the political power to dismiss her foreign secretary.

And Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader who has been vocal in her criticism of the foreign secretary, expressed disgust at his manoeuvres following a terror attack in London. “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service,” she tweeted.

There was similar opprobrium overseas. The Italian leader of the socialist bloc in the European Parliament, Gianni Pittella, said Mr Johnson had echoes of Donald Trump.

“Boris Johnson is embarrassing his country once again by repeating the lies of the Leave campaign. He is jeopardising the Brexit negotiations by threatening to turn the UK into a low-regulation economy. And he insults the intelligence of the British people with his tub-thumping jingoism. It is more in keeping with Trump Towers than Whitehall.

“Boris Johnson sees this as his chance to bag the top job, so is pushing for a far more extreme Brexit. This might play well with hard-right Conservative MPs, but would be a disaster for the UK economy.”

Downing Street maintained that the prime minister still had full confidence in her foreign secretary, despite his apparent political posturing.