Sacked minister Justine Greening calls on critics to back Prime Minister

29 January 2018, 10:16

A former minister who recently left Theresa May's government has called on critics of the Prime Minister to get behind her as she attempts the "almost impossible" task of negotiating Brexit.

Justine Greening, who was sacked by Mrs May after refusing to be moved in her Cabinet reshuffle, insisted she was still a "firm supporter" of the PM and expressed her unhappiness with "soundings off" about Mrs May's leadership.

A torrent of criticism from the backbenches in recent days has sparked speculation that Mrs May will face a leadership challenge.

Eurosceptic former Cabinet minister Theresa Villiers said she was worried about a "dilution of Brexit", while Remainer Heidi Allen told the PM to "get a grip" because the Tories are "letting this country down".

A weekend of Tory infighting worsened after the Telegraph obtained a WhatsApp message sent by energy minister Claire Perry in which she described Brexiteers concerned about the £39bn EU divorce bill as "swivel-eyed" elderly men with no mortgages or young children.

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And there were calls for Mrs May to sack Chancellor Philip Hammond, who enraged Brexiteers by saying trade relations with the EU would change only "very modestly" and that the UK should seek a "middle way".

But Ms Greening told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I remain a strong backer of the Prime Minister. I've been very disappointed to see the soundings off.

"I think they need to stop and I think people need to get behind her.

"I think she is doing an important job for our country. We need to support her in that impossible, almost, task that she has negotiating Brexit."

The former education secretary, who resisted attempts by Mrs May to move her to the Department for Work and Pensions, said she would back the PM if she wanted to lead the Conservatives into the next election.

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"If she wants to do that she will have my full support," she said.

"I think she has been very clear she will take soundings from our party in the run up to that election. I remain a firm supporter of the Prime Minister."

The PM's official spokesman defended Mrs May's handling of Brexit, telling reporters she had secured an agreement with the EU on the first phase of the exit talks and was now focusing on the transition phase and Britain's future relationship with Brussels.

In her interview, Ms Greening was quizzed about university tuition fees and the costs associated with going to university generally.

She said there should be a more "progressive" system to cover living costs rather than the current system of maintenance loans, which replaced grants.

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"That means, I think wrongly, to be perfectly frank, that young people from more disadvantaged poorer backgrounds are coming out like for like on the same course with more debt than their better-off peers," she said.

The former minister said the Government should recognise that most graduates won't pay off their debt when they leave university.

Ms Greening added the money raised from tuition fees should be reserved solely for the higher education system.

She told the programme that she had been against a review of student finance because "the danger of a review is that you just kick things into the long grass".

Universities minister Sam Gyimah told the BBC there would not be any changes to student finance in time for the upcoming academic year.

He said that while tuition fees were an issue "so are living costs", and the Tories wanted to look at the entire system "in the round".

Mr Gyimah said it was "not credible" to say a review could take place in the next seven months.