The foreign secretary told reporters in New York he would not resign and denied the cabinet was split over Brexit policy, insisting: “We are a nest of singing birds.”
But it is understood that Johnson considers it could be a resigning matter if May veers towards the kind of “soft Brexit” advocated by Philip Hammond, the chancellor, when she makes a key speech in Florence on Friday.
The Telegraph reported on Tuesday that the foreign secretary could even quit the cabinet before the weekend if May signals that she will sign up the UK to paying for access to the single market permanently in an arrangement similar to staying in the European Economic Area (EEA).
This option similar to the arrangements adopted by Switzerland is known by its critics as the “EEA-lite”, but would be a way of preserving the benefits of the single market.
Friends of Johnson told the newspaper he “could not live with” the version of Brexit under consideration, which prompted the publication of his personal blueprint for Brexit in the Telegraph at the weekend.
The foreign secretary – who appears to have the backing of other pro-leave ministers, including Michael Gove – was unhappy about some of the wording in early drafts of the speech.
He was concerned the prime minister was preparing to send a public signal that she would like to see a close long-term relationship with the rest of the EU along the lines of Norway, or Switzerland – with more leeway over freedom of movement.
Johnson and others fear that would limit the UK’s ability to do deals with other countries; and require the UK to mirror EU regulations too closely. Saturday’s controversial Daily Telegraph article was aimed at sending a signal he could not support such a relationship.
One source close to Johnson said the Telegraph’s claims that a resignation could be imminent were nonsense and “totally made-up”. However, his article was widely regarded as a warning shot to the prime minister as she prepares to deliver her major Brexit speech on Friday.
Johnson was piqued that a meeting of other senior ministers involved in Brexit was held last week when he was inspecting hurricane damage in the Caribbean.
May is also in New York, attending the UN general assembly. Asked whether she still backed the foreign secretary, she told Sky: “Boris Johnson has been here at the United Nations doing important work yesterday in a meeting on Burma.”
“I will be seeing Boris at various stages during our time here, but of course we have got very busy programmes.”
May will convene a special meeting of her cabinet on Thursday, to consult colleagues about her speech on Friday. A Number 10 source said: “The PM has said consistently that she values the contribution of people from across the cabinet, and clearly this is a significant moment in terms of our progress, and in terms of our relationship with Europe.”
May’s spokesman also underlined the fact that May plans to use Friday’s speech to discuss not just transitional arrangements, but Britain’s ongoing partnership with the rest of the EU. “She will talk about the future relationship going forward, as well as the progress on the talks so far,” he said.
Asked if she was confident of getting consensus on her Brexit strategy at Thursday’s meeting, May said: “Yes, 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. 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.”
Asked what she wanted Johnson to do, in the light of reports he may resign, May said: “What I want the government to do is what the government is doing, Boris and others, all very clear about the destination we have as a country and that is getting that deep and special relationship with the EU when we leave, but a partnership that still leaves us as the UK free to make trade deals around the world. and free to take control of our laws, our borders and our money.”
Asked if she had “got her mojo back”, May said: “I’m doing what I always do, which is getting on with the job and, you know what, I think that’s what the British people expect their prime minister to do.”
Speculation about the foreign secretary’s future has been rife since the article was published, as some senior Conservatives believe he should have been sacked for departing from collective responsibility. Ken Clarke, the former chancellor, said he would undoubtedly have been dismissed if May was not in such a weak position.
“Sounding off personally in this way is totally unhelpful and he shouldn’t exploit the fact that [Theresa May] hasn’t got a majority in parliament,” Clarke said on Tuesday. “And he knows perfectly well that, normally, a foreign secretary would be sacked instantly for doing that.”
However, May could leave herself vulnerable to a leadership challenge if she sacked Johnson, whose intervention won the backing of hardline eurosceptics and former Vote Leave supporters.
This article was written by Rowena Mason and Heather Stewart, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 19th September 2017 16.58 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010