Theresa May must sack Boris Johnson and shake up her cabinet if she is to reassert her authority and silence talk of a leadership plot in the wake of this week’s calamitous party conference, Conservative MPs will tell her.
Few backbenchers were willing to give their public backing on Friday to Grant Shapps, the former party chairman who emerged as the prime mover behind a bid to gather enough MPs to convince the prime minister to step down.
But many remain furious about the foreign secretary’s recent behaviour and want May to show that she is willing to exert discipline. Younger backbenchers are also anxious to see a new generation of talent brought into government.
The issue is set to be raised at next Wednesday’s meeting of the executive of the party’s powerful 1922 Committee.
“There’s a general feeling that there’s support for her there, but I do think she needs to do a major reshuffle, and if she doesn’t act to sack Boris and to bring some new people on board, she has a problem,” said one member, who said several backbench colleagues had asked them to raise concerns about the makeup of May’s top team.
Another said: “Some people are saying, ‘impose some discipline, show that you can sack some people,’ and I think she has the authority to do that.”
Johnson’s future became the talk of Tory conference after the latest of a series of interventions in which he appeared to set out a distinct position on Brexit.
The foreign secretary used his speech on the conference floor in Manchester to profess loyalty to May and “every syllable” of the stance set out in her Florence speech earlier this month. But he went on to spark a row later the same day with controversial remarks about Libya.
Three Tory MPs – Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston – called for Johnson to be sacked, after he said the war-torn city of Sirte only had to “clear the dead bodies away” to become a world-class tourist attraction.
The prime minister took a day off after Wednesday’s speech, during which she was handed a mock P45 by a prankster, repeatedly lost her voice, and lettering fell off the backdrop.
She emerged on Friday to carry out what aides insisted were her usual round of constituency engagements, including attending a charity coffee morning, and to insist she had the backing of cabinet colleagues.
“What I think is necessary for the country now, what the country needs, is calm leadership. That’s exactly what I’m providing, and I’m providing that with the full support of my cabinet,” she said.
Shapps toured TV studios on Friday morning, urging his fellow MPs to act. “A growing number of my colleagues realise that the solution isn’t to bury our heads in the sand and just hope things will get better.
“It never worked out for [Gordon] Brown or [John] Major and I don’t think it is going to work out here either,” he said.
Privately, few believe he has much hope of gathering the 48 signatures necessary to trigger a formal leadership contest in the short term. “He’s on his own,” said one minister.
Nigel Evans, the MP for the Ribble Valley and a member of the 1922 executive, told the BBC’s Daily Politics the move was “more of a tantrum than a coup”.
“What Grant’s got to do is just calm down. Theresa had the legendary conference cold, and when you get a cold you take Strepsils, you don’t take a revolver,” he said.
“He’s had his go and the bandwagon he tried to push over the prime minister is now rolling over him.” Another MP said: “I wouldn’t trust Grant Shapps any further than I could spit.”
But others said the concerns Shapps was voicing were widely felt, and even without the incidents during conference speech, MPs would have been discussing the urgent need for a radical reboot.
Newer MPs are also keen to see fresh faces brought into the leadership team, as the party struggles to show that it can restore its appeal to younger voters.
May made a series of announcements in Manchester aimed at seizing back the initiative from Labour, including raising the threshold at which graduates will start paying back their student loans, and setting aside an extra £2bn for social housing.
No 10 made a deliberate effort on Friday to stress that it was business as usual for May – with sources saying she would be working through her red boxes of paperwork as normal over the weekend.
The government also announced that she would meet senior business leaders on Monday to discuss Brexit, as negotiations resume in Brussels between David Davis and Michel Barnier, the EU commission’s negotiator.
“Last month in Florence I set out my vision for a bold and unique new economic partnership with the EU. We are working hard to achieve this and are optimistic about our future as a global, free-trading nation,” the PM said in a statement.
Pro-Brexit MPs are known to be among up to 30 rebels signed up by Shapps, with some fearing that if May’s authority is threatened, it will weaken Britain’s negotiating hand.
One senior EU official said the political uncertainty had made it even less likely the EU 27 would agree to Britain’s demands to move on from withdrawal issues to trade talks.
Barnier gave an informal briefing to EU ambassadors on the position in the negotiations on Friday but the political turmoil in Britain was not discussed, one source said.
A second EU diplomat said: “You trust someone when they come into the room to have the mandate to talk. But if the government is going to collapse, or the prime minister is going to change, how can we know that things aren’t going to change?
“At the moment there is insufficient progress and there is no consensus among the EU27 about how to encourage the Brits to make commitments on money. We could offer to talk trade between us at the October European council. But at the moment there is not a majority of member states for that. Using the offer of talking about a transition period after October was also discussed but again there was no consensus.”
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