Theresa May came under further pressure on Thursday, with a group of rebel MPs seeking advice on a potential challenge from those involved in the last successful coup against a Tory leader and a former party chairman urging her to call a leadership election.
They were reminded that it took a month-long plot to depose Duncan Smith after an unsuccessful conference in which he was seen as delivering a weak leadership speech, best known for its remark “the quiet man is here to stay and he’s turning up the volume”.
Late on Thursday night, Grant Shapps, who chaired the party between 2012 and 2015, told BBC Radio 5 Live: “I think she should call a leadership election. The writing is on the wall.”
And in a further blow to May, a high-profile donor also called on her to quit.
The group of rebels have long been critical of May but have been spurred into action after her conference speech was marred by mishaps. A prankster handed her a mocked-up P45, she struggled to deliver her remarks because of an incessant cough, and problems with the backdrop.
Although the numbers ready to act against May now could amount to 30 MPs, the group falls well short of the 48 needed to trigger a formal contest by writing letters to the chair of the party’s 1922 committee of backbenchers. As a result, no move to confront the prime minister is expected this weekend, with one senior MP claiming it would simply expose the lack of numbers involved.
Sources said that May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, and chief whip, Gavin Williamson, were calling MPs to shore up support as she retreated to her constituency for local engagements.
However, there was pressure for May from elsewhere in the party. One Conservative donor, Charlie Mullins, of Pimlico Plumbers, broke ranks to claim that it was time for her to go. He told the Guardian that if it were a boxing match the fight would have been stopped. “She needs to chuck the towel in,” he said.
“She has been put in a position where she is being bullied, she is being intimidated, they are making her life hell. These are Conservative people who are destroying this woman and it needs to stop,” he said, claiming that Boris Johnson was causing particular harm.
One plotter claimed Mullins’ intervention was key, because the withdrawal of support from donors had been critical in the downfall of Duncan Smith.
His remarks came after Ed Vaizey became the first former minister to speak out against May since the shambolic speech. He said it was “increasingly difficult to see a way forward” and was worried about his party.
The Cameron loyalist, who was sacked by May after serving as a culture minister for six years, told the BBC: “I think there will be quite a few people who will now be pretty firmly of the view that she should resign.”
Plotters indicated they were trying to gain support from across different wings of the party, ranging from ardent Brexiters to passionate remainers, and so rebels were not coalescing around any particular successor.
However, they have faced a backlash from party colleagues, many of whom are more angry with Johnson, and have been rallying around May.
Notably, the prime minister received support from influential figures from the 1922 committee with its vice-chairman, Charles Walker, saying she was doing an “outstanding job in very, very difficult circumstances”.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the so-called “men in grey suits” whose support for the party leader is critical, described a “mood of goodwill”. However, he conceded that May needed to demonstrate leadership and vision.
A second donor, John Griffin – who founded the minicab company Addison Lee – said the prime minister should remain in place but agreed with others about the foreign secretary. “Boris has been a naughty boy and needs a smacked bum,” he said.
Others questioned the motives of those attacking the prime minister. Margot James, the minister for small business, hit out at “former ministers who feel embittered” for causing trouble.
“They are fomenting discontent but they are a small minority,” she said, arguing that “sensible colleagues” would leave her alone and that May was a “woman of great principle and work ethic”. Although James admitted there was an “unfortunate sequence of events” at the speech in Manchester on Wednesday, she stressed that the prime minister had delivered it and “reset the policy agenda”.
The Brexit secretary, David Davis, told the Guardian: “I think she showed her courage. It was an unlucky break but anyone can get an unlucky break – the difference between a good and a bad leader is that a good leader gets back up again, and that is what she did.”
Others were less convinced, arguing that David Cameron’s advisers would always take great care to ensure he was rested for his conference speech, asking why May had carried out almost 30 interviews over the four days in Manchester before she spoke.
One agreed with Vaizey that May’s speech had “moved the dial” within the party, making some MPs who had wanted to keep her in place until 2019 think she ought to go sooner. The MP suggested that some critics could confront May with a list of names.
But he also conceded that the level of support among those who wanted to oust May was still not large enough for a formal move, saying “no-one wants to do a Geoff Hoon” – in reference to a botched coup attempt against Labour’s Gordon Brown in 2010.
Others said they too felt May’s time had run out. Anna Soubry said she had made her argument “in the early hours of 9 June” that May should go, adding “sadly I don’t think much has changed since then”.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010