Theresa May faced multiple plots to replace her as prime minister from senior cabinet ministers after the election, including an offer by her chancellor, Philip Hammond, to back Boris Johnson for the leadership, according to a new book.
The account by Tim Shipman, political editor of the Sunday Times, gives details of how the prime minister came closer to being toppled than has been publicly acknowledged.
It reveals that Hammond texted Johnson, the foreign secretary, in the early hours of the morning as the election results were still coming through to say he would back him for the leadership if he continued to run the economy while David Davis, the Brexit secretary, also kept his brief. However, the plan came unstuck when Davis would not back the idea of being junior to Johnson.
A source confirmed to the Guardian that several cabinet ministers had texted Johnson giving him their backing for a potential run against the prime minister in the immediate hours after the election, when the results were still not clear.
Since then, Hammond and Johnson have been on opposite sides of the Brexit argument. The chancellor has been pushing for a transition period of longer than two years that maintains the status quo, while the foreign secretary has been battling to reduce the length of the transition and is unhappy with signing up to new EU regulations after March 2019.
Sources close to Johnson briefed several newspapers that he had managed to water down the prime minister’s flagship Brexit speech in Florence on Friday.
They said Johnson had managed to keep transition to two years and successfully stopped May backing the so-called “Norway option”, under which Britain would continue to have access to the EU’s single market in return for payment and adherence to its rules and regulations.
On Sunday, Davis disputed that Johnson had changed the prime minister’s course on Brexit, arguing that the policy had been settled some weeks ago. Speaking on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, he said: “I have to say that the policy in the prime minister’s speech has been coming for a long time. Some of it we were designing months ago. I don’t think there has been any change in policy in the last few weeks.”
Some senior Conservatives believe Johnson is trying to goad May into sacking him for insubordination so that he is well positioned among Brexiters to replace her as leader when the time comes for another contest.
Shipman’s book details two other plots to oust the prime minister. The second was an attempt by supporters of Davis, which was widely reported before parliament’s summer break.
One source was reported as saying Davis was well aware of the attempt by one of his supporters to collect names of Tory MPs willing to challenge the prime minister, which reached between 30 and 50.
The book says the third attempt was a growing campaign to prepare the home secretary, Amber Rudd, for a leadership bid if the role became vacant.
It says senior Conservatives such as David Cameron and Sir John Major rallied around Rudd as a candidate from the moderate wing of the party after Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, ruled out standing in a snap byelection.
The machinations over the Tory leadership leave May in a vulnerable position going into the Conservative party conference, where she will have to get through a speech to the grassroots membership.
Senior figures with ambitions for the leadership are also likely to use the conference platform to set out their pitches for the future of the party and Brexit.
The party conference in Manchester in just over a week’s time will also be grappling with the issues of how to appeal to younger people with better policies on student fees and housing. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, won young voters over in large numbers during the election.
This article was written by Rowena Mason Deputy political editor, for theguardian.com on Sunday 24th September 2017 10.53 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010