Philip Hammond’s Treasury has come under fire from a leading Conservative leave campaigner, who said that the gloomy outlook and “Brexit in name only” approach of the department risked scuppering the UK’s EU exit.
Bernard Jenkin’s highly critical intervention came while other Tory MPs urged Theresa May to sack the chancellor, as those on the right of the party flexed their muscles following days of criticism of Boris Johnson and speculation about an autumn cabinet reshuffle.
Nadine Dorries was the only MP to publicly call for Hammond to go, although other Brexit-supporting politicians told the Guardian that concerns about the chancellor were being widely discussed on the Tory backbenches.
Jenkin insisted that his intervention was not a personal attack on the chancellor, who he wanted to remain in place, but he wrote in the Guardian to express his unhappiness about the Treasury, which he believes is among the anti-Brexit doomsayers.
The MP, who was a director of the Vote Leave campaign, complained that the Treasury was frogmarching the UK towards a damaging EU deal and called on the prime minister to assert her authority over the department.
Jenkin argued that the EU had “coopted the CBI, parts of the City and, it seems, the Treasury” to assist it in making the Brexit process difficult and damaging. “They are legitimising EU threats of economic disruption,” he said.
A Treasury source said Hammond and his department were committed to delivering Brexit. “Britain will leave the European Union, the customs union, and the single market in March 2019. The Treasury is working hard to make sure that can happen.”
Allies of the chancellor were quick to respond, with one cabinet minister warning that “realism is no sin when it comes to Brexit.”. The Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, argued that it was the Treasury’s job to set out the risks associated with different Brexit outcomes.
A febrile atmosphere has dominated the Conservative party since May struggled through the party conference with a mishap-laden speech. A handful of backbench MPs criticised her leadership, and a larger group voiced concern about Johnson, whose Brexit interventions overshadowed May’s own positioning on the subject. Over the weekend, several MPs said privately that May should think about removing Johnson as foreign secretary and conducting a wider cabinet reshuffle.
May will attempt to get on the front foot on Monday by warning that Britain has made sufficient concessions in the Brexit negotiations for now. “The ball is in their court. But I am optimistic we will receive a positive response,” she will tell MPs in a statement to parliament on Monday.
Appearing to adopt some of the language of ardent Brexiters on her backbenches, the prime minister will add: “So while of course progress will not always be smooth, by approaching these negotiations in a constructive way – in a spirit of friendship and cooperation and with our sights firmly set on the future – I believe we can prove the doomsayers wrong.”
Jenkin, who chairs parliament’s public administration and constitutional affairs committee, accused officials of being “blind to the facts” adding: “The Treasury seems unable to hear any voices except those which reinforce their preconceptions ... People like Sir James Dyson or Anthony Bamford of JCB are ignored.”
His comments may have been aimed at officials, but Dorries told ITV’s Robert Peston that she thought May should sack the chancellor himself, claiming: “I think he has been deliberately trying to make the Brexit negotiations difficult.”
Another backbencher told the Guardian that there were several conversations going on behind the scenes among Brexit-supporting Tories who were fed up with the gloomy predictions of the Treasury. One senior figure claimed that it was hard to see how any major government policy could be a success without the full support of the chancellor, implying that Hammond could end up blocking Brexit.
Others lept to Hammond’s defence. Davidson responded to Dorries by telling Peston that May should “absolutely not” remove the chancellor.
Hammond is due to appear in front of the Treasury select committee this week and could face difficult questions on Brexit. However, the committee chair, Nicky Morgan, called it “truly extraordinary” that a Tory MP would attack the people “trying to limit the economic risk to the UK by Brexit. This says more about the Brexiters desperately defending their win than them having any interest in supporting the finances of Britain’s households,” she said.
One high-profile business figure agreed. Sir Howard Davies, the chairman of RBS, said the damage to the City from Brexit was “going to be quite considerable over time” and will result in job losses. Davies said there would definitely be a cost to British jobs, adding that the question was whether Britain could negotiate enough market access so that the cost was not tens of thousands.
Speaking on Sky News, Davies said there were some business concerns that “it is taking quite a long time to get to the nitty-gritty of what a new trading relationship with the EU would be”. He added: “Certainly some time, I think, has been wasted up to now in negotiations which haven’t really got anywhere.”
The disagreements over Brexit the progress of the negotiations are a sign of continued deep divisions within the party, with some coalescing around Hammond, who they see as fighting for a soft Brexit, and others lining up behind key Brexit figures. Johnson had caused anger with his Brexit interventions, but rushed to the prime ministers defence on Sunday by calling those plotting against her “nutters”.
The vast majority of Tory MPs have rallied around May following revelations that the former party chair Grant Shapps was attempting to gather names of colleagues who would ask the prime minister to step down. The MP was quickly isolated, in a move that some colleagues branded a “witch hunt”, in WhatsApp groups of Tory parliamentarians.
Some had claimed that Shapps was working for a cabinet member such as Johnson or David Davis, the Brexit secretary, but that has been strongly denied. May used a Sunday newspaper interview to hint that she could be prepared to reshuffle Johnson or other colleagues.
When asked if she could move the foreign secretary in an expected reshuffle, she said: “It has never been my style to hide from a challenge and I’m not going to start now. I’m the PM, and part of my job is to make sure I always have the best people in my cabinet, to make the most of the wealth of talent available to me in the party.”
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