MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Besides her own diminished authority, Prime Minister Theresa May has been forced to contend with two major distractions in Manchester that threaten to rip her ruling Conservative Party apart: Brexit and her ambitious foreign minister, Boris Johnson.
Weakened by her bet on a snap election which lost her party its majority in parliament, May had said she wanted to use her party’s annual conference to showcase her pledge to make the economy work for ordinary people.
Even before the conference opened, Johnson, who led the leave campaign in last year’s EU referendum, provoked the ire of cabinet colleagues by repeatedly attempting to portray himself as the champion of a genuine ‘bold Brexit’.
May said her cabinet was united behind her Brexit stance but when asked whether Johnson was unsackable, she laughed and sidestepped the question. Her finance minister, Philip Hammond, said there were different views on Brexit in the cabinet.
Arriving in Manchester, in northern England, Johnson said with a smile he was right behind May. He later told Reuters he was completely loyal to the prime minister and was not seeking to overshadow her at the conference, where he is popular with many activists.
“I am enjoying the conference very much and the prime minister just gave a great speech to the business lunch,” Johnson said. When asked if he was seeking to overshadow May, he said: “Absolutely not.”
Boris, as he is known in Britain, repeatedly upstaged former prime minister David Cameron at party conferences though after the shock referendum result sank Cameron’s career, Johnson unexpectedly dropped out of the race to be leader.
May won the leadership and appointed Johnson as her foreign minister, provoking consternation in European capitals who were angry at his rhetoric - including comparing the goals of the EU to those of Adolf Hitler and Napoleon.
The chair of the Treasury Select Committee, Nicky Morgan, said Johnson should be fired if he could not be loyal to May.
“If he can‘t, sort of, keep schtum about his own views, if he can’t give up the oxygen of publicity, because he will be delighted that everybody is talking about him right now, if he can’t stop setting down arbitrary red lines, then yes, he has to go,” she told the BBC.
“And the chief whip, or the prime minister, has to deliver that message.”
‘BREXIT A MONSTROSITY’
Divisions over Europe, which helped sink the Conservative premierships of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Cameron, so dominate the party that almost no new policies have been announced.
Those that have included a pledge to help make graduates with student debt 30 pounds a month better off, a consultation on recycling plastic bottles and some money for a railway.
“It’s the pro-Brexit lot versus the anti-Boris lot,” said one Conservative Party member who asked not to be named. “They’re both positioning to get control of the party machine if something happens to the PM. It’s a very strange atmosphere.”
“If we get down to a leadership contest, it will be unlike anything we’ve seen for a long time – both sides will be scrapping to the death,” the member said.
Many Conservatives privately say they fear a leadership contest would pave the way for an election victory by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who Hammond cast as a Marxist seeking to impose a socialist fantasy on Britain.
At the opening of the conference at a former railway station, tens of thousands of people marched through Manchester chanting “Bollocks to Brexit” and waving the gold stars of the European Union flag.
At the front of the demonstration, a lorry carried a multi-headed chimera with the faces of May and three leading Brexit campaigners: Johnson; Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Brexit Secretary David Davis. “Brexit is a monstrosity,” a sign read. “Let’s Stop It!”
May, now one of the weakest British leaders of recent times, has just over a year to negotiate the terms of the divorce from the European Union and the outlines of the future relationship before Britain is due to leave in late March 2019.
Both sides need an agreement to keep trade flowing between the world’s biggest trading bloc and the fifth largest global economy, though some diehard Brexiteers in her party are calling for her to leave without a deal.
Many business leaders fear a disorderly exit that would weaken the West, imperil Britain’s $2.5 trillion (1.88 trillion pounds) economy and undermine London’s position as the only financial centre to rival New York.
“The Conservatives are in trouble and they know it: there is a sense of vacuum at the top and that tends to infect a conference,” Matthew Parris, a columnist for The Times and former Conservative lawmaker, told Reuters.
“May’s leadership looks unsustainable but equally all possible challengers look implausible,” said Parris. “Boris has his supporters and he has energised those supporters but he has pissed off an awful lot more including many of his parliamentary colleagues who are spitting.”
Editing by Janet Lawrence