Philip Hammond has conceded that the cabinet is split over the implementation of Brexit and warned Boris Johnson that his interventions risk weakening the UK’s negotiating position.
On the second day of the Conservative party conference, which has been dominated by the issue, the chancellor was unusually frank in admitting that the foreign secretary was not keeping to the agreed cabinet line over Brexit.
Asked about a series of newspaper articles and interviews by Johnson in which he set out his personal “red lines” for Brexit, Hammond, who will make his speech to the conference later on Monday, said he accepted that the cabinet was divided.
“We know, on this big issue of how we take forward our exit from the European Union, what type of relationship we should have with the European Union in the future, there are differences of view, nobody is denying that,” he told Sky News.
“What Boris has been saying is stuff Boris has been saying for the last 18 months. He hasn’t said anything that people didn’t know he was thinking about.”
Asked whether he felt Johnson should “shut up” on the issue, Hammond replied: “I think the more we can show unity, the stronger our negotiating position with the European Union would be.”
Tory backbenchers and business groups alike have been frustrated by the splits. Adam Marshall, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, accused the foreign secretary of destabilising the government and said cabinet divisions were undermining economic confidence.
Hammond insisted, however, that Johnson’s interventions would change nothing.
Asked about the differences between Theresa May and Johnson over the length of a planned Brexit transition period – she said in her recent speech in Florence this should last “around” two years, while the foreign secretary has argued that 24 months should be the absolute maximum – Hammond said there was no doubt.
“The position is very clear,” he said. “I was sitting there in the front row at Florence, and I heard the prime minister very clearly say, a time-limited interim period of around two years. And that’s what the position is.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Hammond described Johnson’s views on limiting the period to two years as “a rhetorical flourish” and said the government would stick to the position outlined by May in Florence.
“We had a cabinet discussion before the speech and the whole cabinet signed up to that position,” he said. “That is our position.”
May’s close ally Damian Green, the first secretary of state, reiterated the prime minister’s position during a fringe event at the Conservative conference on Monday morning, saying the transition period could extend slightly beyond two years.
“The phrase the prime minister used was ‘around two years’, but that means a few months either way,” he said.
Asked about Johnson’s behaviour, Green said: “Boris is doing what Boris has always done – adding to the gaiety of nations.”
In a separate interview with ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Hammond said it was up to May whether Johnson should be sacked.
“Questions about how the cabinet is managed are questions for the prime minister,” he said. “We all serve at the prime minister’s pleasure, and we all owe the prime minister our allegiance and our loyalty within the cabinet.
“I’ve always operated on the principle that it’s probably best to believe that nobody is unsackable. Everybody’s to pull their weight within the government and make the case in what is a very challenging negotiation that we’re facing.”
Hammond said May had his “100% support. She’s indicated that she intends to fight the next election as leader of the Conservative party. If she does so, she will have my support”.
In his speech to conference in Manchester, Hammond is expected to promise that the next generation will be “better off than us; and that their children will be better off again than them”.
He is expected to unveil £400m of investment in road and rail links in the north of England and the Midlands, as the party targets Labour heartlands.
He will confirm funding of £300m to create connections between the HS2 rail route and cities including Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and York, as well as a £100m investment package for 33 significant new road schemes.
In a perhaps unexpected contribution to the Brexit debate early on Monday, Johnson’s cabinet ally Michael Gove argued that leaving the EU would boost agriculture by permitting increased exports of pigs’ ears.
Speaking at a fringe event, the environment secretary said EU rules mandating ear tags on livestock pigs meant their ears, a delicacy in some countries, were less valuable. After Brexit this would not be necessary, he said.
“We will have a fair, competitive advantage – we can sell more pigs’ ears to China and that means there can be more bacon and pork and ham from the other joints of the animal that are popularly sold here,” he said. “So by selling more sows’ ears to China we can buy more silk purses for British farmers.”
Speaking at a party of the Tories’ influential 1922 Committee of backbenchers on Sunday evening, May said a Brexit transition period would be vital.
“We are going to have an implementation period and when we have that implementation period, we will already know what the future arrangement of a trading deal is that we will have with the EU,” she said.
“We’re coming out in March 2019, we will have an implementation period to work towards that end point, which is so important. That has to be a time-limited period.”