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The Conservative party has erupted into open civil war after forceful criticism of Boris Johnson over his description of Theresa May’s Brexit plan as a suicide vest prompted counter-accusations of a “project smear” by Downing Street.

The furious exchanges, in which a leading Tory backbencher said she would probably quit the party if Johnson became leader, herald a turbulent run-up to the party’s conference this month, which is likely to be dominated by intertwined rows over Brexit and the successor to Theresa May.

But Johnson further fuelled speculation about his ambitions by using his regular Monday newspaper column to argue that the UK should follow Donald Trump’s example and slash taxes to create a “happy and dynamic economy” for Johnson’s suicide vest.

And the former Brexit minister, Steve Baker, added to the divisions by warning that the Conservative party faces a “catastrophic split” if the prime minister sticks to her Chequers plan for future relations with the EU.

Following days of detailed reports about Johnson’s convoluted personal life after he and his wife of 25 years, Marina Wheeler, announced they were divorcing, the weekend’s news cycle was dominated by his renewed criticism of May’s Chequers plan.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Johnson accused May of repeatedly caving in over Brexit terms to the EU and its chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, saying that “in the talks so far, Brussels gets what Brussels wants”.

He wrote: “Under the Chequers proposal we are set to agree to accept their rules – forever – with no say on the making of those rules. It is a humiliation. We look like a seven-stone weakling being comically bent out of shape by a 500lb gorilla.”

In the most contentious passage, Johnson castigated the so-called backstop plan to ensure no hard Irish border, which would see Northern Ireland effectively remain part of the single market if no other workable solution is found.

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