Conservative MPs are split between Brexiters who want Philip Hammond sacked and remainers who would like to see Boris Johnson out of a job, but believe the prime minister may be too weak to get rid of either of them in a reshuffle in the coming weeks.
In conversations with dozens of Tories, the Guardian found MPs divided along their views on the EU referendum over whether they would like to see Johnson or Hammond given the boot.
Theresa May has hinted she could conduct a reshuffle after her trip to Brussels at the end of next week, as she comes under pressure from new MPs in her party to bring fresh talent into the cabinet after a moribund Conservative party conference.
Since then, a handful of remainers, including Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, have called for Johnson to lose his job over his interventions setting out his own personal blueprint for an optimistic Brexit. On the other side, leavers including Nigel Lawson and Nadine Dorries have urged May to get rid of the chancellor for being too gloomy.
Those views are widely echoed by MPs in private, but allies of Hammond believe the backlash against him in recent days has partly been whipped up by staunch Brexiters hoping to shoring up Johnson’s position, since the prime minister is unlikely to sack both her chancellor and foreign secretary.
“You now can’t sack Johnson without causing an almighty row with the Brexit supporters if you don’t sack Hammond. If we’re honest, both have been undermining the prime minister as much as the other,” said one former Conservative minister who backed remain.
He said May was probably only one crisis away from having to step down anyway, with some believing she could go before Christmas after the disastrous conference. But if she was clever, he said, she could try to stave off her departure by filling a cabinet and junior ministerial ranks with ambitious loyalists who owe their positions to her patronage.
The opinions of both the Johnson and Hammond camps in parliament are entrenched. “If you listen to what Hammond says, he is just speaking what he thinks but if the Brexiters hear half a sentence they don’t like, they just jump on it immediately and try and blame it on a remainer. It’s just pathetic,” said one Tory MP on the remain wing of the party.
“Given this whole thing is a complete car crash, I trust Spreadsheet Phil with the numbers and he has the economy at the heart of everything he does. He is just trying to make sure the country doesn’t fall over. But I won’t be shedding any tears if Boris goes, put it that way.”
Another pro-EU backbencher said: “If there is a reshuffle, then Boris goes … I’m sure he would make a very good international development secretary.”
But if May were to move Johnson while trying to keep him onside, her options are limited as too many jobs would look like a demotion. He could struggle to be chancellor or business secretary given the deep concerns of the business world over Brexit, he would not seem a natural choice for the Home Office after his historic row with May over the use of water cannons by the police in London, and is reportedly not up for the job of party chairman, even though that could help his leadership prospects with grassroots members.
David Lidington, the justice secretary, is being talked about by centrist Tories as a possible replacement for Johnson. The urbane former Europe minister knows his away around the capitals of the EU27, and is the opposite of gaffe-prone.
However, that would not wash with the Brexit camp, who believe the reshuffle should be an opportunity to promote some of their own number such as Dominic Raab, a junior minister, and Steve Baker, a Brexit minister who helped run the leave campaign in parliament. While they would like to see a leave supporter in the Treasury, there is some acknowledgement that most credible replacements for Hammond as chancellor – David Gauke and Amber Rudd – are both former remainers, who would not spook the City.
One Brexit-supporting backbencher, who wants May to step down, said: “Hammond definitely has to go and the cabinet needs far more Brexit supporters in it. But I’m not sure she is strong enough to be able to sack either Hammond or Boris. And all the cabinet are on manoeuvres so she is very exposed if there is a reshuffle. The media narrative has been written and it’s going to be difficult for her to get out of it. It doesn’t really matter what she does. If it happens soon, it’s Boris or David Davis, isn’t it?”
Some MPs believe May is trying to keep MPs and her cabinet on their toes by threatening a reshuffle that never comes. But Giles Kenningham, a former No 10 adviser who runs Trafalgar Strategy, said May had made a strategic mistake by floating the idea.
“The power of the reshuffle is the element of surprise. Now if she backs out and changes her mind she looks weak. And by letting it be known she’s considering axing ministers the PM has given people like Boris time to manoeuvre,” he said.
However, he said it could make a difference to the government if she gets it right. “Whilst the cabinet needs to feel and look like modern Britain, what May really needs are ministers fizzing with fresh ideas who can help drive a distinct domestic agenda to show the government isn’t completely consumed by Brexit.”
If the prime minister is not bold enough to go after her chancellor or foreign secretary, there are several other options to free up space for fresh faces.
Several MPs suggested Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, could easily be moved on because he has been in cabinet for seven years and is unpopular with the public sector workers that the party must win over.
Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, is another veteran who could potentially be moved on without creating an enemy on the backbenches. Greg Clark, the business secretary, shares May’s vision for a new industrial strategy but is said to be regarded by some in No 10 as lacking in energy.
Meanwhile, Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, looks almost certain to be shuffled out after his role in the election campaign when the Conservatives lost their majority.
But the action may go in the lower ranks, where some of the newer 2015 and 2017 intake are hoping to get government jobs, such as James Cleverly, Tom Tugendhat, Kemi Badenoch, Nusrat Ghani, Seema Kennedy and Will Quince.
“I would like to see a real beauty parade among the junior ministers,” said one Tory MP, who could not name a single colleague he thinks would make a good replacement prime minister, in spite of believing May’s days are numbered.
“Around a third of the cabinet are useless. We need to see some of the newer MPs who fancy themselves showing what they are made of.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010