CHANCELLOR Philip Hammond has refused to deny comments attributed to him accusing public-sector workers of being “overpaid”.

The astonishing attack made during last Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting was leaked to press over the weekend, as hard Brexit-backing colleagues moved to undermine the soft Brexit-supporting Chancellor in an increasingly bitter and personal civil war.

The SNP expressed disbelief that, ahead of the second week of Brexit negotiations, due to start today, the UK Government was engulfed by “court intrigue” as ministers jostled for position in the battle to replace Theresa May.

Loading article content

Over the weekend a series of leaked press reports left Hammond floundering.

As well as the leaks from Cabinet, a newspaper suggested that Hammond said technology made driving a train so easy that “even” a woman could do it.

On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Hammond denied making those comments, insisting: “No, I didn’t. And I wouldn’t say anything like that.”

He lashed out at colleagues briefing against him, saying: “If you want my opinion, some of the noise is gen- erated by people who are not happy with the agenda which I, over the last few weeks, have tried to advance of ensuring that we achieve a Brexit which is focused on protecting our economy, protecting our jobs, and making sure that we have continued rising living standards in the future.

“They shouldn’t have done it, frankly, because Cabinet meetings are supposed to be a private space in which we have a serious discussion.

“I think on many fronts it would be helpful if my colleagues – all of us – focused on the job in hand. This Government is facing a ticking clock over the Brexit negotiations.”

Asked if there was now a fight under way within the Cabinet to succeed May as leader and Prime Minister, Hammond said: “I certainly hope not. If there is I am no part of it.”

Reports suggested at least five sources shared Hammond’s comments about public-sector workers.

May and the Chancellor are facing a rebellion from Tory backbenchers, many of whom want to see an end to the one per cent pay cap for public-sector workers.

But the Chancellor doubled down on his comments, insisting that, “relatively”, public-sector workers were paid more than their counterparts in the private sector.

“Public-sector pay raced ahead of private sector pay after the crash in 2008-09,” he said. “Taking public- sector pay before pensions con- tributions – that gap has now closed,” he said.

“But when you take into account the very generous contributions public-sector employers have to pay in for their workers’ pensions – their very generous pensions – they are still about 10 per cent ahead.”

Hammond also said there was now an acceptance among senior ministers that there would have to be a period of transition when the UK leaves the EU.

“I believe the great majority of my colleagues now recognise that is the right and sensible way to go,” he said.

“We have to do this in a way that meets the concerns and requirements of both people who want a softer version of Brexit and those who campaigned hard to leave the European Union.

“I think most people are willing to accept a transition so long as it is of a limited duration in order to avoid a hard landing.”

Hammond said the duration was a “technical question” that would be determined by the time needed to get the new post-Brexit arrangements in place.

“It depends how long we need to put in place new customs systems, new migration systems. These things can’t be magicked up overnight,” he said. “We are not going to be talking a couple of months. I think we are going to be talking a couple of years.”

Those comments put Hammond at odds with International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, with whom he has had a tricky relationship.

Fox, who was forced to resign in disgrace from David Cameron’s cabinet in 2011, was asked if he was part of the group briefing against Hammond.

He told the BBC’s Sunday Politics: “I absolutely deplore leaks from the Cabinet.

“I think my colleagues should be very quiet, stick to their own departmental duties and I think the public expect us to be disciplined and effective. Our backbenchers are furious and the only people smiling at this will be in Berlin and Paris.”

Pressed on why people were leaking details, Fox said: “I think there’s too much self-indulgence and I think people need to have less prosecco and have a longer summer holiday.”

An SNP spokeswoman said: “On the eve of the full Brexit talks getting under way – the most important international negotiations the UK has conducted in decades – it is astonishing to see the Tory Cabinet more interested in court intrigue and settling scores with each other in the press, rather than focusing on the job in hand. If the Tories can’t even reach agreement with each other, then how can anyone expect them to reach a satisfactory agreement with the EU?

“The Tories need to focus more on protecting the jobs and living standards of ordinary people – not their own career advancement – and think again about their reckless hard Brexit.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said there were “varying accounts coming out of every Cabinet meeting about who said what to whom and at what point in the meeting they said it, and everybody saying nothing actually happened.”