Theresa May is facing calls from rightwing Conservatives to sack the chancellor, Philip Hammond, for failing to be sufficiently supportive of Brexit. Nigel Lawson, a former chancellor, is the most senior Conservative to call for Hammond to go, saying: “What he [Hammond] is doing is very close to sabotage.”
On Wednesday, Hammond infuriated Conservative MPs pushing for a hard Brexit when he said money would be spent on preparing for a failure to reach a deal with the EU only at the last possible moment.
May then appeared to contradict Hammond in the House of Commons, when she said the Treasury would spend whatever was necessary on getting ready for that possible outcome.
But Conservative Eurosceptics are increasingly frustrated with Hammond’s approach and have begun applying pressure on May to remove him at the next reshuffle.
Lord Lawson told the BBC: “The really important thing now is that we prepare for the no-deal outcome and it is grossly irresponsible if we don’t prepare.”
When asked if the chancellor was being irresponsible in not making such preparations until the last moment, he said: “I fear he is, yes … You have to spend money from time to time, and there is nothing more important than preparing for what has always been the most likely outcome.”
He said he feared Hammond was undermining the government and advised a reshuffle to remove him. “I fear that he is unhelpful. He may not intend it, but in practice what he is doing is very close to sabotage,” he said.
Nadine Dorries, a Conservative backbencher, added to the calls for Hammond to go, saying: “We need a ‘can do’ man in the Treasury, not a prophet of doom.”
John Redwood, the Conservative MP and former cabinet minister, also called on the chancellor to be more positive, tweeting that he must “get the Treasury to have more realistic, optimistic forecasts and to find the money for a successful economy post Brexit”.
The Daily Mail published an editorial on Thursday calling on May to sack the chancellor, branding him treacherous, the “Jeremiah next door” and a “dismal, defeatist, relentlessly negative” Eeyore.
Amid reports of rancour between No 10 and the Treasury, the prime minister’s official spokesman gave only a lukewarm endorsement of Hammond when asked about her views on Lawson’s comments.
“The prime minister respects the views of all of her cabinet colleagues. As the PM has said before, what matters to the country is delivering a smooth Brexit,” he said. “The chancellor, along with the rest of the cabinet, are united around the position she set out in her Florence speech.”
Two senior cabinet ministers, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson, appeared to side with the prime minister’s emphasis on the need to spend money on preparing for no deal.
Liam Fox, the trade secretary, insisted there was no difference between him and Hammond, but stressed that there was a need to invest in facilities and staff that might be required if the UK leaves the EU without a deal – such as lorry parks and customs operations.
“The chancellor says that we need to spend money only as necessary. I think that’s correct. But we also need to ensure that we spend money on all areas where contingency plans are necessary,” he said.
At a press conference in the Foreign Office, Johnson said it was right to make preparations “as and when it is necessary”. The foreign secretary said: “I remain very optimistic about the talks and the progress that can be made.
“As for getting ready for no deal, I think the prime minister has made it very, very clear that we are going to get a deal; we are working for a great deal, but obviously we must make the right preparations as and when it is necessary for a no-deal scenario. Of course that’s the responsible thing to do and that’s what we are going to do.”
Some on the centrist wing of the party believe the Eurosceptic criticism of Hammond is partly a defensive move to shore up the position of Johnson, whom other Conservatives have pleaded with May to remove.
May is under pressure to carry out a reshuffle to make way for some younger Conservatives in her top team, but would find it hard to move the foreign secretary and chancellor at the same time, risking a backlash from both sides of the party’s EU divide.
One Conservative MP said Hammond felt relatively safe knowing that his position on the EU is supported by businesses and that the City could take fright if he is removed to be replaced by a Brexit backer.
Hammond’s spokesman had no comment on his fellow MPs’ statements on his position.
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