Theresa May is to warn her cabinet ministers against leaking to the press, after senior figures in the Conservative party spent the weekend making thinly disguised digs at each other in the political media.
In a sign of the prime minister's weakened authority following the Tories' unexpectedly poor general election performance last month, Downing Street has struggled to contain bickering between the most prominent figures in May's cabinet on issues including Brexit, austerity, and the future leadership of the party.
In the past few days the briefing by ministers and their aides against each other in the press became so rancorous and embarrassing that May's official spokesman said she would issue a warning at tomorrow's scheduled cabinet meeting.
"She will be reminding them of their responsibilities and making the point that ministers across government need to be to be focused on getting on with delivering what the British public wants," the spokesman said.
The prime minister has been forced to step in after a weekend of highly damaging media reports in which anonymous sources aligned to chancellor Philip Hammond, Brexit secretary David Davis, and foreign secretary Boris Johnson sniped at each other in a brazen attempt to position their patrons for a future leadership contest.
It started on Saturday, when the Sun claimed that the chancellor made a sexist remark at last week's cabinet meeting.
According to columnist James Forsyth, Hammond stunned colleagues at last week's cabinet meeting, at which they were discussing public sector pay, by saying that driving a train these days is so easy even a woman could do it.
Hammond's colleagues have been pressuring him for weeks to ease the 1% cap on public sector pay rises so that the earnings of workers like teachers, firefighters, and nurses can be increased amid growing political unease.
The Sun published another salacious story claiming allies of David Davis were spreading a "vicious sex smear" about Boris Johnson.
According to The Sun's Harry Cole, supporters of Davis had been spreading a rumour that the foreign secretary had a fling with one of May's aides during the election campaign. The newspaper, which didn't name the aide, said there was no reason to believe the rumour was true.
Anonymous sources supportive of Johnson said the story was tittle-tattle, and a result of "yesterday’s men spreading yesterday’s smears.”
The Sunday papers had more mud-slinging.
The Sunday Times' political editor Tim Shipman reported claims of tense exchanges between two of the leading Brexiteers in the cabinet – Johnson and Davis – at the Spectator magazine's summer drinks last week.
Davis "goaded" Boris that he was a "failure", the newspaper reported. Witnesses took the exchanges to be more than harmless summer party banter. It was, they said, the posturing of two men lining up leadership challenges. "They were like a pair of rutting stags locking antlers," one witness said.
Shipman also had details of Hammond's remarks about public sector pay at the cabinet meeting, noting that May had slapped down her chancellor for apparently sexist remarks about female train drivers.
The Mail on Sunday reported that Davis was plotting to "wreck" Johnson's hopes of taking over from May, by forming an alliance with Hammond.
The newspaper cited private comments by Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary, as the source of the claim. By throwing his support behind Davis to become prime minister, the thinking went, Hammond could remain as chancellor and, more important, keep their arch-rival Johnson out of power. Mitchell denied being involved in any plot against May, the Mail on Sunday said.
Hammond suggested the briefings against him were coming from Brexiteers who disagreed with his stance on leaving the EU.
Speaking to the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, the chancellor urged colleagues to "focus on the job that we've been elected to do", and warned of a backlash from voters if they are seen to be putting their own leadership aspirations ahead of the good of the country.
But Hammond couldn't resist taking a jibe at his cabinet rivals, telling Marr that "some of the noise" was coming from people who aren't happy that he's been arguing for a closer economic relationship with the EU.
"So these are hardcore Brexiteers [who are planting stories against you]?" Marr asked.
"Well, you'll have to ask Tim Shipman, James Forsyth who it is. I don't know who their sources are," Hammond said, grinning. "I think we can guess," Marr replied.
Later, on the BBC's Sunday Politics show, Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, said the leaks were sowing division and would not help with the Brexit negotiations. "We don't need an interim leader, we don't need an alternative leader," Fox told the BBC's Andrew Neil. "We have a very good, competent leader in Theresa May."
On Monday there was a new attack on Hammond.
On the morning that Davis was due in Brussels for another round of negotiations, The Telegraph claimed a senior cabinet minister had accused Hammond of deliberately trying to "fuck up" Brexit.
Hammond and the Treasury were standing in the way of the referendum result, the source claimed to the newspaper. Hammond was treating the Brexiteers like "pirates" and trying to impose on the cabinet his own, softer version of Brexit, the source told The Telegraph.
Then Hammond's people blamed environment secretary Michael Gove for leaking against him.
According to The Sun, the chancellor's team are blaming Gove, who previously stood for leadership of the Conservative party, for leaking his comments at last week's cabinet meeting to the press.
“It’s Michael Gove behind all of this," The Sun quoted one unnamed person as saying. Gove has denied it.
On Monday the Sunday Times' Shipman said Gove's team weren't the source of his Hammond story.
Then Gove's wife, a Daily Mail columnist, weighed in, telling everyone in the political media to calm down:
People watching the infighting unfold found it amazing. Nobody can remember the Tories being this openly divided since the '90s.
And then, to rub it in...
Alex Spence is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Spence at email@example.com.
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