Theresa May disapproves the sudden turf war that appeared within the administration. As No 10 sources say, Liam Fox fights Boris Johnson to get the leadership of the Department of International Trade over the Foreign Office.
The fight became open when one of the letters of Dr Fox has leaked, and it turned out there were offensive commentaries towards Mr Johnson’s department. Mrs May strongly disapproves such quarrels within the administration, as she thinks, according to Downing Street sources, that there’s a lot of work to do and it’s time to focus on it.
Dr Fox sent an official letter to Mr Johnson, and it was copied to Mrs May. The latter said that the policy and personnel is better to move to the Department of International Trade he is the head of. He said that if the responsibility for the policies continued to be present within the Foreign Office, the trade of the country would fail dramatically.
The Foreign Office should handle diplomacy and security, including oversight of MI6 and GCHQ, while the international trade department should oversee the trade and investment agenda, Dr Fox said. Whitehall sources are said to have described Dr Fox’s letter as an “institutional insult and assault” and “highly presumptuous”.
Mr Johnson, the foreign secretary, robustly rejected the demands, it is understood, offering instead only to second a small number of staff with relevant expertise to Dr Fox’s department.
Allies of Mr Johnson insisted that reports of a row between the two men were overblown. However, civil servants fear that tensions will rise between Mr Johnson, Dr Fox and David Davis, the newly-appointed secretary for exiting the European Union.
Mrs May’s creation last month of two new cabinet-level positions – secretaries for international trade and Brexit – mean elements of policy that were under the foreign secretary are now spread over three departments. The three men have also been asked to share Chevening, traditionally the country home of the foreign secretary.
Labour called the stand-off between Dr Fox and Mr Johnson “a mess entirely of Mrs May’s making”.
The territorial rivalry over policy emerged as City of London sources said they had been told by ministers that Britain could remain in the EU until late 2019, in a development that could anger pro-Brexit MPs. Downing Street sources contested the reports, insisting that the government was “pushing ahead as quickly as we can” with Brexit.
Mrs May was expected to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the formal mechanism to take Britain out of the union, in January. On that timetable, the two-year deadline for Brexit that the mechanism entails would have meant the UK exiting the EU by January 2019.
However, the new international trade and Brexit departments are unlikely to be ready by January, City sources told The Sunday Times.
French elections next May and German elections next September are also being cited as a cause of the potential delay, the City insiders said, pointing out that talks cannot begin until Britain knows with whom it is negotiating.