Theresa May and senior Tories hit back at Boris Johnson over his claims Brexit plans ‘deranged’

Theresa May and other senior Conservatives have hit back at Boris Johnson after he claimed the Prime Minister’s Brexit policy was “deranged” and “preposterous”.

Mr Johnson’s incendiary comments came as the Conservative Party’s annual conference began in Birmingham, with Mrs May seeking to put herself on the front foot by announcing a new levy on foreigners buying homes in the UK and plans for a national festival in 2022.

In remarks that will fuel speculation about his leadership ambitions, the former foreign secretary used a Sunday Times interview to criticise Mrs May's approach to Brexit and float a series of policy ideas, including halting the HS2 rail link and building a bridge to Ireland.

Asked about his suggestion that her Chequers plan for the future relationship between the UK and the EU was “deranged”, Mrs May insisted she was acting in “the national interest”.

She told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show: “I believe that the plan that we have put forward is a plan that is in the national interest.

“This is a plan which ensures we deliver on the vote of the British people.”

Boris Johnson has claimed the Prime Minister’s Brexit policy is 'deranged' and 'preposterous'. Credit: PA

Speaking to The Sunday Times, Mr Johnson sought to draw a contrast between his own approach to Brexit and that of the Prime Minister, who campaigned to Remain in the 2016 referendum.

“Unlike the Prime Minister, I fought for this, I believe in it, I think it’s the right thing for our country and I think that what is happening now is, alas, not what people were promised in 2016,” he said.

But Mrs May insisted: “I do believe in Brexit.

"Crucially, I believe in delivering Brexit in a way that respects the vote and delivers on the vote of the British people while also protecting our union, protecting jobs and ensuring we make a success of Brexit for the future.”

Mrs May said that the blueprint agreed at her country residence in July was not dead, despite being branded unworkable by EU leaders in Salzburg and receiving a frosty reception from many Tory MPs and activists.

She said the onus was on the EU to come forward with detailed explanations of its concerns, along with counter-proposals for discussion.

“Chequers at the moment is the only plan on the table that delivers on the Brexit vote and also delivers for the people of Northern Ireland,” the Prime Minister told Marr.

“Where they have problems, let’s actually hear them and it’s only then that you can actually identify what the issue really is, where there are issues that lie behind this.

“My mood is to listen to what the EU have to say about their concerns and to sit down and talk them through with them.”

Mr Johnson branded Mrs May’s call for a facilitated customs arrangement, under which the UK would collect levies on behalf of the EU, “entirely preposterous”.

Anti-Brexit demonstrators took to the streets in Birmingham on Sunday. Credit: AP

And his interview took a swipe at Mrs May’s broader approach to policy since she took power in 2016 with a promise to tackle “burning injustices” in society.

“I think we need to make the case for markets,” said the former mayor of London.

“I don’t think we should caper insincerely on socialist territory. You can’t beat (Jeremy) Corbyn by becoming Corbyn.”

While Jeremy Hunt did not explicitly back Mrs May's Chequers plan in a well-received speech to the conference, sparking speculation that he could be setting himself up as a future leadership contender.

The Foreign Secretary called on his colleagues and party members to "come together" and "show the doubters, show the sceptics, show the world the true potential of this remarkable nation".

The South West Surrey MP also warned the European Union that Britain will not be the only "prisoner" wanting to leave the European Union if it is turned into a jail.

Mr Hunt took aim at Brussels' handling of the Brexit negotiations, telling the EU to "never ever mistake British politeness for British weakness" in a speech which received a standing ovations.

He said the EU seemed to want to "punish" a member for leaving, likening their tactics to the Soviet Union, and told delegates in Birmingham: "The lesson from history is clear: if you turn the EU club into a prison, the desire to get out of it won't diminish it will grow and we won't be the only prisoner that will want to escape.

"If you reject the hand of friendship offered by our Prime Minister, you turn your back on the partnership that has given Europe more security, more freedom, more prosperity, more opportunities than ever before in history - and a setback for the EU will become a wholly avoidable tragedy for Europe."

Mr Hunt echoed former prime minister Margaret Thatcher as he told the conference: "Of course we understand that the EU wants to, it needs to, protect itself.

"But if the only way to deal with the UK leaving is to try to force its break-up, as someone much more distinguished than me once said, the answer is, 'No, No, No'."

And he added: "So as your friends of many years we say very simply this: Brexit is not about whether you succeed or we succeed - Europe prospers when we both succeed and it's time to change your approach."

However, Boris Johnson himself came under attack at the Birmingham conference, branded "irrelevant" and an "offensive person" by crossbench peer Digby Jones.

To the delight of many delegates, the Brexiteer and former CBI director general, criticised the former foreign secretary for allegedly retorting "f*** business" when asked about industry concerns around Brexit at a diplomatic dinner.

In a speech watched by the Prime Minister, the former Labour minister for trade and investment said: "Business is so important that when I heard a former foreign secretary f-business, it showed him up for the irrelevant and offensive person he really is."

While the remarks were met with loud applause by many, Mrs May and members of her Cabinet remained straight-faced.

Earlier on Sunday, Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said Mrs May was doing "a great job in difficult circumstances".

Asked by ITV News if it was right for Mr Johnson to be creating a "beauty contest" at the party conference, Mr Hancock said it was "more Beauty and the Beast".

"I think everybody should get behind the Prime Minister and pull together," he said.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson called for “a period of silence” from Mr Johnson, pointing out that he had given his endorsement when in Government to Brexit policies he was now criticising.

And former Brexit secretary David Davis, who quit Mrs May’s Cabinet along with Mr Johnson in protest at the Chequers plan, was dismissive of his fellow Leaver’s proposals on housing and a bridge to Ireland.

“I think one of the blights of British politics is politicians having fantastic ideas that cost a fortune and don’t do much good,” Mr Davis told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday.

“Boris is a great mate of mine, we have a very knockabout friendship, but quite a lot of his ideas, I think, are good headlines but not necessarily good policies.”

  • Delegates in Birmingham were offered "chuck Chequers" badges on their arrival, but they did not prove popular with everyone

Arch-Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg was also critical of Mr Johnson's plans for a bridge to Ireland, branding it a "bridge over troubled water", instead suggesting that taxpayers' money should not be spent on "grandiose projects", but should be saved instead.

The head of the European Research Group defended Mr Johnson's comments about the Prime Minister's approach to Brexit, saying that "Boris says the sort of thing that other members of the Conservative Party say, he just always says it in a more elegant and pointed way, because his command of the English language is so good, so I wouldn't think it's anything more than that".

Mr Rees-Mogg also said he feared Mrs May "would compromise on Chequers in the wrong direction [by making concessions to the EU] and that would be a grave error".

Mrs May used her own interview with The Sunday Times to set out new plans for a stamp duty surcharge of between one and three percent on the price of property bought by people and businesses who do not pay tax in Britain.

The money raised would go towards measures to tackle rough sleeping.

Setting out her plans for a festival in post-Brexit Britain, she said: “We want to showcase what makes our country great today.

“We want to capture that spirit for a new generation, celebrate our nation’s diversity and talent, and mark this moment of national renewal with a once-in-a-generation celebration.”