Boris Johnson has been accused by senior Conservative colleagues of playing into the hands of political opponents during a tetchy cabinet session that also brought a rebuke from Theresa May.
The prime minister and almost all of her senior ministers took it in turns to stress the importance of keeping the high-level discussions confidential after being irritated by a series of pre-briefed news articles.
Allies of Johnson were widely quoted revealing his plans to use the cabinet meeting to demand £100m extra a week, or £5bn a year, for the NHS after Brexit.
Amber Rudd, the home secretary, took the most direct approach as she stressed the importance of trust between those seated at the cabinet table, according to one person present. “I’m talking to you, foreign secretary,” she reportedly said.
May introduced the session with a similar warning. “The prime minister and a large number of cabinet ministers made the point that cabinet discussions should take place in private,” her official spokesman said, in comments widely seen as a telling-off of the foreign secretary.
One source claimed that Johnson was admonished indirectly by almost all cabinet ministers who contributed to the health discussion, with the notable exception of his Vote Leave colleague Michael Gove.
A number are said to have argued that such pre-briefing would simply hand political advantage to Labour, and that the Tories should not throw out funding figures before making clear where the money would come from.
Even the leave campaigner Chris Grayling, who backed Johnson’s call for a Brexit dividend to be spent on the NHS, suggested it would be more politically astute to make such arguments closer to the next election.
However, Johnson – who argued that extra funding would help the Tories take on Labour in a future election – was backed up by Gove. And while the foreign secretary was criticised for making his demands public in advance, sources said his argument for money to be diverted from the EU to the NHS received support from several figures.
The prime minister’s spokesman said May raised the issue in her opening comments. “Regarding the future and how any return of the EU contribution would be spent, the prime minister reminded cabinet that the government has consistently said we will spend money on our priorities such as housing, schools and the NHS,” he said.
May told her team she was working with Philip Hammond, the chancellor, and Jeremy Hunt, the health and social care secretary, to ensure continued investment in the NHS, but she also stressed that the government had given the NHS an additional £6bn in the budget “only a few weeks ago”.
Her spokesman highlighted efficiency reviews in the NHS and plans to integrate social care and health, and pointed to the next government spending round. That will take place in 2018 but will only issue funding for 2020 and beyond.
He said no cabinet member raised “any specific number” in relation to NHS funding, despite a widespread suggestion that Johnson would demand the figure of £100m a week more.
The foreign secretary is said to be frustrated by a claim that key aides to May had argued Labour was too far ahead on the NHS to make it worth prioritising. He is also keen to fulfil the promises he made as a leading figure in the Vote Leave campaign.
Johnson first ramped up pressure on May over the issue in a Guardian interview this month in which he said the campaign’s claim that Brexit could free up £350m a week for the NHS was an underestimate, and argued it was important to spend large chunks of that sum on health services.
A friend of the foreign secretary was quoted on Politics Home website as suggesting the decision to brief reporters before the cabinet meeting came from a staff member after Johnson raised the issue excitedly in the office.
They said the minister felt “very, very strongly about the suggestions he lied about the £350m stuff” but added that he had been given a hard time at cabinet. They suggested Johnson had messed up but would now move on.
While cabinet members expressed their frustration at the meeting, Hammond hit back in Brussels before a meeting of finance ministers, stressing that Johnson was the foreign secretary rather than someone involved in health policy.
“I gave the health secretary [Jeremy Hunt] an extra £6bn in the recent budget and we will look at departmental allocations again at the spending review when that takes place,” Hammond told reporters.
The cabinet discussion came after a winter update on the NHS led by May and then Hunt at which the group discussed the “significant pressure [of] the worst flu outbreak in a number of years”.
They heard that flu admissions in the first week of 2018 were approaching double the number seen in 2010-11 during the swine flu epidemic. The government claims to have made the “most extensive preparations ever” for the winter period, and ministers heard that improvements to the 111 phoneline had diverted an estimated 2.3 million people from A&E while an extra 1 million had been given flu vaccinations.
Hunt, who was among those stressing the importance of private conversations, later appeared to back Johnson’s call for extra NHS spending as he gave evidence to the House of Commons’ health select committee.
Asked whether he supported Johnson’s demands for an extra £100m a week for health, he said: “I don’t think any health secretary is ever going to not support potential extra resources for his or her department.”
He added: “Let’s say that there’s a Brexit debate and there’s an NHS debate and just occasionally those two debates come together.”
However, pressed on where the money would come from for a “Brexit dividend” for the NHS, Hunt said: “I think that is a question for the foreign secretary.”
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