Senior Tories cast doubt on Theresa May's long-term future as leader

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Senior Conservatives have cast doubt on Theresa May’s insistence that she can lead the party into the next election.

In a series of TV interviews during a visit to Japan, the prime minister claimed she was “not a quitter”. Asked by the BBC and Sky News whether she wanted to lead the Conservatives into another election, she said: “Yes. I’m in this for the long term.”

But the former education secretary Nicky Morgan said it would be difficult for May to fight another election, the Tory grandee Michael Heseltine said she had no long-term future and the former chancellor turned Evening Standard editor George Osborne used an editorial to again compare the prime minister to a zombie.

Asked on Thursday at a joint press conference in Japan with her counterpart, Shinzo Abe, about the doubts regarding her ability to remain in office beyond 2019, May reiterated her intention to stay on and “get on with the job”.

“You’re right, I said I wasn’t a quitter, and there’s a long-term job to do, there’s an important job to be done in the United Kingdom,” she said. “We stand at a really critical time in the United Kingdom.

“Yes, that’s partly about getting Brexit right, but if you think back to what I said when I became prime minister, when I stood in Downing Street, there are many other issues that we need to address, long-term challenges in our country, ensuring that people don’t feel left behind.

“These are real issues that we need to be dealing with and I’m there to do it. I think for most members of the public, they would say they want the government to get on with the job. And that’s exactly what I and the government are doing.”

Speaking to the BBC’s Hardtalk programme, Morgan, the chair of the Treasury select committee, said: “One of the things that has been missing has been an attempt to reconcile the faultlines in the Conservative party shown up by Europe.

“I think it’s going to be difficult for Theresa May to lead us into the next general election ... We have got to think about how we renew our franchise.”

Lord Heseltine, who was deputy prime minister under John Major, was more scathing, telling BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight that Conservative MPs needed to decide whether they wanted a repeat of May’s election battle with Jeremy Corbyn.

“My own guess is they won’t. The long term is the difficult one for Theresa May because I don’t think she’s got a long term,” he said.

Heseltine, who, like Morgan, campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU, predicted that the UK would face another general election in the next two years.

An Evening Standard leader accused May of staggering on oblivious, like the “living dead in a second-rate horror film”. Days after the election in June, Osborne said May was a “dead woman walking”.

The piece added: “Britain deserves a better movie than this.”

The former Conservative party chairman GrantShapps likened May’s interview to Margaret Thatcher’s pledge to “go on and on”.

“I think colleagues may well be surprised by this interview last night and I think it is too early to be talking about going on and on, as Margaret Thatcher once said. Let’s get some progress for the British people first; I think that’s the priority,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Katie Perrior, a director of communications at No 10 until the snap election was called, said May had no choice but to commit to staying for the long term, but predicted that she would not fight the next election.

“I think she said exactly the right thing. It is the only thing she could say. I know when David Cameron announced that he was going to step down at a certain point, it was downhill from there,” Perrior told Today. “She knows in politics you never give your end date.”

Asked whether May would lead the Tories into another election, she said: “No.”

Sarah Wollaston, the chair of the health select committee and a leading Tory remainer, who was critical of the election campaign, expressed loyalty to the prime minister on Twitter.

The pro-Brexit wing of the party also backed May’s comments. The former shadow Wales secretary Nigel Evans, who also criticised the election campaign, said the prime minister’s vow to continue was great news.

“We need no more instability while the PM focuses on disentangling the UK from the EU,” he said. “We have the right leader and PM to deliver this for us.”

The arch-Eurosceptic Peter Bone told the BBC’s Newsnight that May would be regarded as a national hero if she delivered Brexit.

The Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries also appeared to link May’s future to the Brexit negotiations.

The Eurosceptic John Redwood told Sky News that if May “wishes to remain as leader, that’s fine by me”.

“There won’t be a leadership election until such time as she resigns and she has made it very clear she is not going to,” he said. “So anyone who thought they needed to get a leadership campaign ready was wasting their time.”

On an official trip to Nigeria, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who is considered a leading contender to replace May, said he supported the prime minster staying on.

“We need to get Brexit done. She’s ideally placed to deliver a great outcome for our country and then deliver what we all want to see, which is this exciting agenda of global Britain,” the BBC reported him as saying.

“I think she gets it. She really wants to deliver it. I’m here to support her.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Matthew Weaver and Peter Walker in Tokyo, for theguardian.com on Thursday 31st August 2017 12.29 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010