Theresa May will issue a call for unity within the Conservative ranks on Wednesday as a string of cabinet ministers told the Guardian they were deeply frustrated with Boris Johnson for creating days of headlines about party division.
The prime minister will use her centrepiece conference speech to demand an end to the infighting, declaring a “duty to Britain” to shift the focus from the job security of senior Tories to that of ordinary working people.
The call will be made as at least 12 cabinet colleagues – more than half of the total number of cabinet members – expressed their frustration with the foreign secretary in a series of private and public conversations during the conference.
They said they were angry that his two recent Brexit interventions, including an interview seen as laying down his red lines for negotiations, caused the party’s annual conference in Manchester to be dominated by questions of loyalty and leadership.
“A lot of people are very, very frustrated, including me,” said one senior member of the team, who suggested Johnson should have phoned colleagues to express his views rather than publish them in newspapers.
A second said the foreign secretary had not won any friends on the backbenches, while a third rolled their eyes and remained tight-lipped when asked about him, refusing to defend their colleague. Others expressed similar views.
May will warn that “beyond the gossip pages of the newspapers, and beyond the streets, corridors and meeting rooms of Westminster, life continues – the daily lives of ordinary working people go on”.
“And they must be our focus today,” she will say.
“Not worrying about our job security, but theirs. Not addressing our concerns, but the issues, the problems, the challenges, that concern them. Not focusing on our future, but on the future of their children and their grandchildren – doing everything we can to ensure their tomorrow will be better than our today.”
In her speech, May will conclude: “So let us do our duty by Britain. Let us shape up and give the country the government it needs.”
However, May was on Tuesday night facing further controversy and calls for Johnson to be sacked, after he remarked that a Libyan city could be the next Dubai if it would “clear the dead bodies away”.
Sources revealed that May will also use the speech, which is likely to be policy-heavy with at least one major new announcement that was still being hammered out on Tuesday night, to give a more personal take on her life and politics.
She hopes that highlighting stories that help explain her motivations could chip away at a somewhat frosty reputation that has seen her nicknamed the Maybot.
In an attempt to reach out to younger voters, housing will feature as a key part of the speech with a promise to undertake the first major council house building programme in decades.
Downing Street aides insisted that the prime minister’s call for the party to stop looking inward and unite was not aimed at any individual but May did admit in broadcast interviews that there had been too much focus on Johnson’s career hopes.
Asked by the BBC if he had undermined her by publishing his vision of Brexit in a newspaper article and doing an interview that was seen as him laying down his own red lines for negotiations, May said: “It doesn’t undermine what I am doing at all. There is a lot of talk about Boris’s job or this job or that job inside the cabinet.
“Actually, what people are concerned about – they don’t want us to be thinking about our jobs, they want us to be thinking about their jobs and their futures.”
However, she also defended the decision not to sack the foreign secretary by saying she did not want to be surrounded by “yes men”.
The Guardian can reveal that allies of Johnson used a WhatsApp group of Tory MPs to support his Brexit article and newspaper interview. They encouraged colleagues to share the pieces, arguing that it was refreshing to see someone making the positive case for leaving the EU.
However, Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, poked fun at Johnson from the conference stage, mentioning the controversial £350m claim of Vote Leave and suggesting military equipment was the real lion roaring – in a joke about the title of his speech.
The foreign secretary used his set-piece address to protest his loyalty to May, after suggesting that his interventions were in line with government policy.
Johnson, whose speech won a short standing ovation from grassroots delegates but was only attended by one cabinet member, Michael Gove, mocked the buoyant mood of Labour and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
He said: “He didn’t win. You won – we won. Theresa May won. She won more votes than any party leader and took this party to its highest share of the vote in any election in the last 25 years, and the whole country owes her a debt for her steadfastness in taking Britain forward as she will to a great Brexit deal.
“Based on that Florence speech on whose every syllable, I can tell you, the whole cabinet is united.”
Allies of Johnson insisted that they were not involved in advising him about his interventions, with some suggesting he ought to go quiet.
But he was given a hero’s welcome by grassroots Tories across conference, who also clamoured to hear Jacob Rees-Mogg speak at a series of fringe events.
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