Senior Tories call for end to damaging Brexit splits

Manchester (United Kingdom) (AFP) –


British Finance Minister Philip Hammond warned Monday that cabinet divisions over Brexit risked undermining both EU negotiations and business confidence, joining figures across the ruling Conservative party in calling for a truce.

Prime Minister Theresa May has sought to use this week's annual conference to present fresh ideas after her humiliating setback in June, when she called a snap vote only for the Conservatives to lose their parliamentary majority.

But questions persist over her leadership, fuelled by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who has challenged her by setting out his own vision for Britain's departure from the European Union.

"The more we can show unity, the stronger our negotiating position in the EU would be," Hammond told Sky News television.

"(Brexit minister) David Davis is doing a great job in Brussels, but his hand would be strengthened where it is clear that he has a united government behind him and a clear position."

Earlier this year, Hammond sought to press his own vision for a more gradual split from the EU, which is at odds with Johnson's demands for a clean break.

But six months after Britain began the two-year process of leaving, he said ministers must come together.

Asked if Johnson should be fired for going off message, Hammond said: "Nobody is unsackable."

Other senior Tories have backed the call for unity, with popular Scottish party leader Ruth Davidson saying it was time to end the "psychodrama".

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox also backed May's approach on Brexit, even if he wants to sever ties as soon as possible.

"We must be a unified party," he told delegates.

Among Conservative MPs who oppose Brexit, there is also little time for manoeuvrings by Johnson, who is known for his gaffes.

"We cannot afford to be clowns on the world stage. It's a serious time for serious people," one said.

The frustration was also clear among ordinary party members at the party conference in Manchester.

"We have to stop all this. We just have the back the prime minister," said Geraldine Carter, a 67-year-old from Yorkshire, in northern England.

- Business warning -

In a stinging rebuke, a leading business lobby group warned Monday that it was "growing impatient with division and disorganisation at the heart of the party of government".

British Chambers of Commerce director general Adam Marshall said businesses "expect competence and coherence from ministers as we move into a critical period for the economy".

In his speech to the conference, Hammond acknowledged that "investment has slowed as businesses wait for clarity".

He said there should be urgent agreement on a transition after Britain leaves the EU in March 2019, and said this should be done by "accelerating" the negotiations with Brussels.

In a major speech in Florence last month, intended to unlock the stalled talks, May said this implementation period could last "around two years".

Johnson warned at the weekend that it should be "not a second more", although Fox said it was "fine".

- 'No other candidate' -

Johnson, known for his wit and tendency to go off message, always draws large crowds at Conservative conferences, and with many delegates are eagerly awaiting his speech on Tuesday afternoon.

But there seems little appetite for the idea that he could challenge May to the leadership.

"I think he says things to stir up debate. Most people here are behind the PM," said John May, a delegate from Surrey, outside London.

Many people in Manchester are lukewarm about the prime minister, but most agree there is no clear successor.

"There's no other candidate who could take her place now, until the end of Brexit," said London delegate Simon Finkelstein, 26.

Another, who asked not to be named, said the party was still smarting from May's election gamble, and now was no time to take risks -- especially as the opposition Labour party is enjoying a resurgence.

"Changing horses in midstream is asking to fall off," he said.