Theresa May, the home secretary, has been warned by cabinet colleagues to act as a “team player” or risk damaging her chances of succeeding David Cameron as leader of the Conservative party.
May has been told to rein in her special advisers who acted in an “arrogant” way after declining to campaign in the recent Rochester and Strood byelection.
In a sign of the deep tensions at the highest levels of the party – as May, George Osborne and Boris Johnson jostle for position as potential successors to the prime minister – one senior figure said that the home secretary was doing herself no favours.
The well-placed Tory source told the Guardian: “No one is out to block [Theresa] from her aspirations. But it doesn’t do her any favours to allow her spads [special advisers] to run around.
“Theresa could be thinking this does not really matter – that this prime minister won’t be there, I won’t be standing against him, I’ll be standing post him one day. But it does matter that other cabinet colleagues have come to the conclusion that she is not a team player. They are saying she needs to realise that she needs to build allies.”
The Tory source spoke out after Kenneth Clarke blew into the open a spat between the Conservative leadership and the home secretary’s team after two of May’s special advisers declined to take part in telephone canvassing in the recent Rochester and Strood byelection. Grant Shapps, the Tory chairman, responded by suspending Nick Timothy and Stephen Parkinson from the list of approved parliamentary candidates after consulting the prime minister.
As a veteran of Tory battles dating back decades, Clarke advised the party chairman and home secretary to rein in their entourages, which he described as “quite entertainingly newsworthy”. The former chancellor told the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1: “I don’t complain. It’s quite entertainingly newsworthy but somebody should stop all their entourages falling out with each other. The relations between the people themselves are good. Theresa is one of the strongest ministers in the government.
“Any prime minister – and David is very sensible about this – accepts he wants strong ministers at the top of his government. The entourages seem to be having a little spat between themselves.”
May’s special advisers said it would be inappropriate for them to take part in telephone canvassing in the Rochester and Strood byelection because they believed that the code of conduct for special advisers barred such activity.
They asked for clearance from Sue Gray, the Cabinet Office official in charge of policing the code, to take part in the byelection. Shapps told the pair that Gray had approved the involvement of special advisers in byelection campaigns as long as they did so in their spare time. It is understood that the Tory chairman, who cleared his actions with the prime minister, also questioned why Timothy had been happy to campaign in the Newark byelection in the summer, by which time the rules for special advisers had been relaxed.
The senior Tory source told the Guardian: “It would be helpful if Theresa kept her special advisers in line. There is a slight arrogance to the whole story being about these two spads when lots of people want to stand for parliament. There is no reason why special advisers should have a different route to others. While you are on the list, you work.”
May made representations to Shapps on behalf of her special advisers. It is understood that the Tory chairman told the home secretary that her special advisers would be readmitted to the list of approved parliamentary candidates with a clean bill of health after the election as long as they accept that they have to campaign.
The Tory source said: “So far that hasn’t happened. Their line is: it is not good enough that the prime minister and another cabinet minister says it is OK to campaign. They literally seem to think they are beyond every part of the party, and that is not the case.”
The home secretary made clear that she remains a significant force when her allies made clear that she wants the Conservatives to include a commitment in their manifesto that would force students from outside the European Union to leave the UK and apply for a new visa from abroad once they have completed their degree.
The proposal is likely to face serious questions from the Treasury and Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, which believe Britain can benefit if highly skilled overseas graduates are allowed to enter the UK job market after completing their degrees.
A Home Office source said of the proposal, which was included in the Tory manifesto for the last election: “The projected increase in students is unsustainable unless we make sure most leave at the end of their visa.
“It doesn’t mean no graduates can stay. It just means they have to leave the country before applying for a new student visa or work permit.”
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, criticised May’s plan to toughen the visa rules for people who have recently graduated overseas.
“More does need to be done to stop people overstaying illegally when their visas run out – whether they arrived on student visas, work visas or tourist visas,” Cooper said.
“But the answer to that isn’t to prevent highly skilled overseas graduates getting legal work visas to fill shortages in fields like science or medicine here.”
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