The tensions in Theresa May’s government intensified on Sunday night ahead of this week’s vital votes on the Brexit bill, as ministers accused Boris Johnson and Michael Gove of sending an “Orwellian” set of secret demands to No 10.
As an increasingly weakened prime minister faces the possibility of parliamentary defeats on the bill, government colleagues have said they are aghast at the language used by the foreign secretary and the environment secretary in a joint private letter.
The leaked letter – a remarkable show of unity from two ministers who infamously fell out during last year’s leadership campaign – appeared to be designed to push May decisively towards a hard Brexit and limit the influence of former remainers.
It complained of “insufficient energy” on Brexit in some parts of the government and insisted any transition period must end in June 2021 – a veiled attack on the chancellor, Philip Hammond.
They urged the prime minister to ensure members of her top team fall behind their Brexit plans by “clarifying their minds” and called for them to “internalise the logic”.
But the leak drew a bitter response from supporters of a soft Brexit, who suggested that May would now be forced to either discipline the pair or further weaken her position, which has already been tested by the recent resignations of Priti Patel and Michael Fallon and continuing pressure on Johnson and Damian Green.
One cabinet minister told the Guardian: “It is not surprising that they [Gove and Johnson] would express their view. But what is surprising is that they would write this down and use this kind of language in a letter to the prime minister.
“Some have described it as Orwellian, and it is. It is not helpful when people try and press their views in untransparent way.”
Another minister said: “I doubt they thought this would ever come out. It stinks to high heaven. May will have to dress them down or look weak.”
Another former cabinet minister said: “I can’t believe this has come out. This is exactly the kind of arm-twisting by Brexiters one expects to go on behind the scenes, but the fact that it is in the public and is being inflicted upon the prime minister is remarkable.”
Reports have also claimed that 40 Conservative MPs – eight short of the number required to force a leadership challenge – have joined a list of Tory rebels who want May to resign.
The letter, disclosed in the Mail on Sunday, was marked “For your and Gavin’s eyes only”, a reference to the PM’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell.
It appears to show that Gove and Johnson, who led the Brexit campaign but infamously split when Gove withdrew his support for Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign to run himself, are again working as one.
The letter states: “We are profoundly worried that in some parts of government the current preparations are not proceeding with anything like sufficient energy.”
“We have heard it argued by some that we cannot start preparations on the basis of ‘No Deal’ because that would undermine our obligation of ‘sincere cooperation’ with the EU. If taken seriously, that would leave us over a barrel in 2021.”
Downing Street did not respond to questions asking whether ministers had expressed any concerns about the letter. A No 10 spokesperson said: “ It is common – and indeed expected – practice under governments of all colours for cabinet ministers to offer advice and views to the PM.”
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, further heightened concerns over the prospect of a hard Brexit by saying that the bloc was drawing up contingency plans for the possible collapse of Britain’s departure talks.
May is already struggling with the EU withdrawal bill, which returns to the Commons on Tuesday. Labour is expected to join Tory rebels to inflict a series of damaging defeats on the government. They will seek to give parliament a binding vote on the final divorce deal between Britain and the EU.
Sensing the government’s weakness, Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, has written to May warning she does not have the authority to deliver a transitional deal and prevent a “no deal” Brexit because of extreme Brexiters in her cabinet and on her backbenches.
“Over recent weeks, it has become increasingly clear that you alone do not have the authority to deliver a transitional deal with Europe.
“I believe there is a sensible majority in the House of Commons for transitional arrangements that serve the national interest. That is why I am urging the government to adopt an agreed position on transition and to support our amendments in the Commons on Tuesday,” he wrote.
The EU is concerned that turmoil within the Conservatives could prevent the British side from making a clear financial commitment at a key Brussels summit in December, which could delay progress until March.
Barnier, who last week gave the UK a two-week deadline to provide greater clarity on the financial settlement it was prepared to offer as part of the divorce deal, told France’s Journal du Dimanche newspaper the failure of the talks was not his preferred option.
“But it’s a possibility,” he said. “Everyone needs to plan for it, member states and businesses alike. We too are making technical preparations for it. On 29 March 2019, the United Kingdom will become a third country.”
Member states will decide at a summit on 14 and 15 December whether or not “sufficient progress” has been made on the core separation issues – the divorce bill, the Irish border and citizens’ rights – for negotiations to advance to the next stage.
“We want to reach an agreement [with the UK] within the next 14 working days,” Barnier said, so the summit’s draft conclusions can be circulated and approved in time. “Today, we are not there. The rendezvous will be postponed if progress is not sufficient.”
Conservative plotters against May claim they have 40 MPs backing a motion of “no confidence” against her. Rebel leaders told the Sunday Times that May has made the situation more dangerous because some MPs were now sending letters directly to Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 committee.
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