In a leaked email, the former Conservative chair, who was added to a WhatsApp group so that he could read the reams of criticism against him, expressed surprise that attacks even came from those who “most rail against cyberbulling”.
He said he was appalled by the way that his name was briefed to the media and “presented in a simplistic villain versus hero fashion”.
The MP called it a “deliberate attempt to vilify those who wanted to speak to the prime minister” about their concerns and to silence critics by dissuading “colleagues from daring to share their private view with the PM”.
Shapps refused to comment on the existence of the email, which was sent to colleagues before being passed on to the Guardian.
However, a copy reveals an attempt to explain his role in gathering together names of Tory MPs who would like to see May resign from her role as party leader, which resulted in a fierce backlash against him.
He said he had been persuaded by his party leader’s “dignified” promise to serve as long as colleagues wanted her after the result of June’s general election. But Shapps argued that conversations about how long she should stay were rife within the party.
“I can’t imagine there’s a single colleague who hasn’t had that conversation at some point. A list of concerned colleagues from varying perspectives on issues including Europe (both remain and Brexit) and how long Theresa May might serve therefore, unsurprisingly, exists,” he wrote.
“Views range from those who believe that she should serve until the end of the Brexit process in 2019, right down to those who believe the party and country would be better served by a more immediate leadership election. A position with which, I appreciate, you do not agree.”
Shapps insisted that he wanted to express his views to May in private and had even told Downing Street’s director of communications about the existence of a list. “I was completely up front. Indeed, Robbie Gibb personally thanked me for being so candid,” wrote Shapps, expressing surprise to see his name on the front page of the Times later in the week.
“But rather than a list of concerned colleagues who wanted to express their thoughts to the PM, we were presented with talk of ‘plots’ and ‘ringleaders’. We now know that No 10 passed on the above information to our whips. They in turn briefed it as a sensationalist story.”
Shapps argued that he had a right to his view and was shocked by the response. “The level of abuse and bile which has rained down since is simply unprecedented in my own experience of politics, and I’ve been a party chairman at election time, so that’s saying something! Sadly, it has come from many of our own colleagues, including those who most rail against cyberbullying. Some of whom are known to have previously held similar views on this issue of timing.”
Shapps’ defence came after others who also wanted to see May step down, who have spoken anonymously to the media, refused to speak out following the backlash.
Instead, Tory MPs have rallied around the prime minister while some have turned their fire on to the chancellor, Philip Hammond, or foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, depending which wing of the Tory party they belong to.
Johnson came out to support May, describing plotters as “nutters” in an article for the Sunday Telegraph, after he was criticised for overshadowing the party’s annual conference with his interventions on Brexit.
Johnson’s 4,200 word article laying out his vision for Brexit and a newspaper interview regarded as his attempt to place down red lines for Britain’s departure have dominated coverage in recent weeks.
The Guardian can reveal that the article expressing the loyalty of the foreign secretary was commissioned by Downing Street and sent by May’s team to the newspaper. “It was commissioned by us. He wrote it and it was sent over to the paper unchanged,” said a source.
Meanwhile, Johnson called on his “so-called friends and allies” to stop briefing the media against May, saying he does not know who they are and they are not speaking on his behalf.
The foreign secretary’s intervention in a message to a WhatsApp group of Conservative MPs followed an article in the Telegraph on Monday in which unnamed backers said he would refuse any attempt to demote him in a reshuffle.
One ally told the paper that moving Johnson would go down “like a bucket of cold sick” with pro-Brexit voters, with another saying there was now a “stench of death” emanating from Downing Street.
In his message, a copy of which was passed to the Guido Fawkes website, Johnson said he did not support such briefings.
“Folks I have seen yet more stuff in the Telegraph and the Sun purporting to come from so-called friends and allies of mine,” the message reportedly read. “I am frankly fed up to the back teeth with all this. I do not know who these people are. I do not know if they are really my friends and allies or if they represent some sinister band of imposters [sic].
“I heartily disagree with the sense, tone and spirit of what they are quoted as saying. Whoever they are they do not speak for me.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010