Theresa May is to order her ministers to stop leaking details of cabinet discussions following days of infighting over Brexit policy and anonymous briefings against ministers, particularly targeting Philip Hammond.
While there was no formal investigation planned into the leaks, May’s spokesman said, the prime minister would use Tuesday morning’s weekly cabinet meeting to insist they stop.
“What I would say is of course cabinet must be able to hold discussions on government policy in private and the prime minister will be reminding her colleagues of that at the cabinet meeting tomorrow,” he said.
“She’ll just be reminding them of their responsibilities and making the point that ministers across government need to be focused on getting on with delivering for the British public.”
Asked whether May’s plan to upbraid her cabinet amounted to an acknowledgement that such leaks had, indeed, come from ministers, her spokesman said: “I’m not going to get into speculation of who said what, where and when.”
He said: “I’m simply saying that cabinet must be able to hold its discussions on government policy in private, and the PM, as I said, will remind her colleagues of that at tomorrow’s meeting.”
Hammond was the target of leaks from other ministers on both days of the weekend about his supposed comments in cabinet, one saying he called public sector workers “overpaid”, the other claiming he said driving modern trains was so easy “even a woman can do it”.
On Monday, the Telegraph cited an anonymous cabinet colleague as saying Hammond and the Treasury “want to frustrate Brexit” and that the chancellor viewed Brexiters as “pirates”.
In a counter-briefing, an unnamed ally of Hammond told the Sun that the environment secretary, Michael Gove, was the source of some of the leaks from last week’s cabinet meeting. But this was denied by friends of Gove as “simply untrue”. A senior Tory also claimed that Gove and Boris Johnson were behind the briefings against Hammond, saying they were “so obsessed with a hard Brexit that they’re prepared to run the economy off a cliff”.
But Tim Shipman, the Sunday Times political editor, later confirmed that Gove and his allies were nothing to do with his report of the leaks.
It comes at a time of intense speculation over May’s leadership and the future of Brexit, with Hammond, Johnson and David Davis all potentially vying for supremacy.
Allies of Davis appear to be furthest down the road in talking of a leadership bid but, like Hammond, he is viewed with suspicion by some proponents of Brexit, even though he campaigned to leave.
Dominic Cummings, a former adviser to Michael Gove and architect of the successful Vote Leave campaign, tweeted on Monday that Davis was pitching himself as a choice who would compromise on Brexit, while describing him as “thick as mince, lazy as a toad, and vain as Narcissus.”
DD is manufactured exactly to specification as the perfect stooge for Heywood: thick as mince, lazy as a toad, & vain as Narcissus— odysseanproject (@odysseanproject) July 17, 2017
Although May will ask her cabinet to stop bickering, she appears powerless to stop the battle over her succession and the shape of Brexit.
Michael Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister, said May’s government was enfeebled and deeply divided. He guessed that the person responsible for the cabinet leak was a leading Brexiter because that was “where the self-interest lies”. But he argued that that person cannot be sacked because the prime minister has no authority.
Lord Heseltine told the World at One: “So you have an enfeebled government. Everybody knows this. I don’t like saying it, but I’m not telling you anything that every journalist is not writing every day ... The Europeans have worked it all out. This is a government without authority. This is a deeply divided government and what they know, what the Europeans know, and what our national press knows is every day there’s a more depressing headline.”
Earlier, the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, said he did not recognise the reports about the cabinet meeting, during which Hammond was reportedly chastised by May for his comment about driving trains.
“I read some of the stuff in the papers at the weekend and it bore no relation to the meetings I was in last week,” Grayling told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Speaking on Sunday, Hammond vehemently denied making the comment about women being able to drive trains, and called for people to stop leaking discussions from cabinet.
Grayling endorsed this: “The chancellor is absolutely right to say no one should be discussing, on or off the record, what takes place in cabinet meetings. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that at all.
“But the coverage I read at the weekend about the tense rows in the cabinet simply didn’t happen – it wasn’t like that.”
Grayling said the reports of rancour seemed vastly exaggerated. “All I can say is my experience of both being inside cabinet meetings and also with cabinet colleagues in the last few weeks is that I don’t see these great divisions that are suggested in some of the Sunday newspapers,” he said. “I have to say I think all of this is somewhat overblown.”
However, this was not to say there was never any disagreement among ministers, Grayling added.
“What I know is: we’re not a group of clones, we have discussions round the cabinet table and outside cabinet, we debate issues, we decide what’s right and we get on with it,” he said.
“I’m very clear that the cabinet and the party are united behind Theresa May, united in determination to get the right deal for the country in Brexit, in the Brexit negotiations, and to make sure we continue the economic progress we’ve made.”
On Sunday, Hammond told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show that the briefings had been “generated by people who are not happy with the agenda that I have … tried to advance, ensuring that we achieve a Brexit that is focused on protecting our economy, protecting our jobs and making sure that we can have continued rising standards in the future”.
But, Hammond insisted, the cabinet was now “coming much closer together” on EU issues. He was backed by the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, who played down the idea of divisions between him and Hammond over the length of any post-Brexit transitional deal with the EU.
Grayling also denied that Hammond was isolated on Brexit, saying: “We all want a Brexit process to lead to a situation where we have good, constructive economic and trade relations with out European neighbours, not as part of the European Union, but as their biggest customer.
“It’s in everyone’s interests that we have an economically sensible, economically beneficial Brexit deal. And everyone’s going to work for that – everyone in cabinet agrees that that is where we should be.”