A Theresa May government would hand the job of “Secretary of State for Brexit” to an MP who campaigned to leave the EU, the Tory leadership hopeful will pledge.
Ms May, who campaigned for Britain to Remain, will present herself as the unity candidate to bring the Conservative Party and the country back together after the bitter divisions created by the EU referendum.
When formally announcing her leadership challenge, the Home Secretary will pledge to set up a new Government department responsible for conducting Britain’s negotiations with the EU, and forging the terms of a new relationship outside of the bloc. In a unifying gesture, she will commit to appoint an MP who backed Brexit to lead the department – holding out the possibility that senior Leave campaigners Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or Liam Fox could spearhead talks in Brussels, even under a Government led by Ms May.
Nominations for the Conservative leadership close at midday on Thursday. The candidates so far declared include Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb, who backed Remain, and former Defence Secretary Mr Fox.
Boris Johnson, who was Vote Leave’s figurehead, will also launch his campaign on Thursday. He is thought to have attracted the support of more than 100 MPs, mostly from the Leave camp but also among Remain campaigners.
Backed by the Justice Secretary Michael Gove, Mr Johnson is viewed as the candidate to beat, but tensions between the two Leave campaigners were laid bare when an email from Mr Gove’s wife emerged, urging his camp to secure “specific assurances” from Mr Johnson or withhold their support.
The email, which was seen by Sky News, from the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, who is married to Mr Gove, appears to have been sent to the Justice Secretary and his team. Sent on Tuesday morning, it reads: “Very important that we focus now on the individual obstacles and thoroughly overcome them before moving to the next. I really think Michael needs to have a Henry or a Beth [Mr Gove’s advisors] with him for this morning’s crucial meetings.
“One simple message: you MUST have SPECIFIC assurances from Boris OTHERWISE you cannot guarantee your support. The details can be worked out later on, but without that you have no leverage.
“Crucially the membership will not have the necessary reassurance to back Boris, neither will Dacre/Murdoch [Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre and News UK chief Rupert Murdoch], who instinctively dislike Boris but trust your ability enough to support a Boris/Gove ticket. Do not concede any ground. Be your stubborn best. GOOD LUCK.”
It was unclear what assurances Mr Gove has sought from Mr Johnson. His spokespeople declined to comment on the contents of the private email, which is understood to have been copied accidentally to a member of the public, and then passed on to Sky News.
However, the revelation that Mr Gove considers himself invaluable to Mr Johnson because he can curry favour with Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, and Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corp which owns The Sun and The Times, will reignite questions over media influence in politics and could be seized on by Mr Johnson’s leadership rivals.
Other challengers for the Tory crown could still include Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, both Remain backers, and energy minister Andrea Leadsom, who campaigned prominently for Leave.
Launching his own bid, Work and Pensions Secretary Mr Crabb said that the party needed to overcome the splits of the referendum campaign. Backed by the Business Secretary Sajid Javid and the Attorney General Jeremy Wright, Mr Crabb, who grew up on a council estate, will present himself an antidote to establishment Tory leaders, and a figure able to represent the views of working class Leave voters.
In a jab at Mr Johnson, Mr Crabb said that, if he became Prime Minister, he would make controlling immigration a “red line” in negotiations with the EU over the new terms of Britain’s relationship with the bloc.
“One message that came through louder than any other in the vote last week is that the British people want to take control of immigration,” he said, also pledging to seek “as close an economic relationship with the EU as we have now” and to “end the supremacy of EU law”.
Mr Johnson is likely to campaign with similar pledges – but will face an uphill struggle after EU leaders said that Britain faced a choice between access to the single market, and the economic benefit it brings, and controls on immigration – and could not have both.
Launching her bid, Ms May will commit to leading an “outward-looking and globally-minded and big-thinking country”. Warning that the EU negotiation will require “significant expertise and a consistent approach”, she will say: “I will therefore create a new government department responsible for conducting Britain’s negotiation with the EU and for supporting the rest of Whitehall in its European work. That department will be led by a senior Secretary of State – and I will make sure that the position is taken by a Member of Parliament who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.”
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