Conservative MPs are considering another attempt at ousting Theresa May if the local elections go badly, as disillusionment with her leadership bubbles up among backbenchers once again.
A string of MPs have told the Guardian that criticism from Nick Boles, a former minister, of her “timidity and lack of ambition” has struck a chord within the parliamentary party, especially among those who believe she is falling short on domestic issues.
At the time it appeared there was little appetite to get rid of the prime minister before the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, but frustration with her lacklustre performance, botched reshuffle and shifting Brexit strategy has caused talk of deposing her to resurface.
One former minister said the most dangerous time for the prime minister would be after the local election results in May if there is a wipeout of Conservative-held councils in London, with Barnet, Kensington and Chelsea, and Kingston all potential opposition targets. He also cited areas outside the capital such as Swindon and Amber Valley as potentially vulnerable to falling to Labour or no overall control.
Another senior Conservative MP said he had supported May at the start of her premiership because of her promise to focus on social injustice but it was increasingly clear there was a “vacuum of ideas” at the heart of her government.
He said the natural time for a challenge would be after the local elections, and concerns about the effect on Brexit talks were being overtaken by the urgency of getting a prime minister who would do better against Jeremy Corbyn.
A leadership contest would be provoked if at least 15% of MPs – 48 of them – send a letter to the chair of the 1922 Committee expressing their lack of confidence in May, prompting a vote of the parliamentary party on her future.
There have been reports in the Sun that Graham Brady, the leader of the 1922 Committee, is so worried about the growing numbers that he is asking MPs to think carefully before sending in their letters.
Up to 40 MPs are thought to have submitted letters so far. One member of the 2015 Conservative intake said they knew of seven or eight others who had talked about sending letters to Brady without having done so yet, meaning it was possible the 48 figure could be reached.
The MP said a series of disappointments in May had culminated in her reshuffle this month, which was seen as having mishandled the junior appointments.
“She’s on very thin ice,” they said. “We had the election, then the conference; she bought herself some time with the budget and the Brexit deal, but the reshuffle has caused a new series of problems.”
Newer Tory MPs were particularly annoyed at the distribution of junior ministerial posts in the reshuffle, they said, with some feeling the process was unfair.
“It used to be that you’d know what sort of things you’d need to do to get promoted, but that doesn’t seem to be the case now. And it makes MPs more reckless – they start thinking: I’m not going to get anywhere with this PM so I might as well risk a change.”
There is still a large rump of Conservative MPs who believe it would be a terrible time for the disruption of a leadership contest at a crucial time for negotiations with the EU.
One Eurosceptic MP said the unrest was coming principally from those who do not prioritise Brexit and are mainly concerned with the threat to their seats from a resurgent Labour.
“It is a small percentage of the parliamentary party who want a change of leadership,” he said. “The rest want to cling to nurse for fear of something worse.”
He said many of the pro-Brexit wing of the party was worried about getting rid of May for fear of ending up with a remainer such as Amber Rudd in charge, and the pro-EU side was concerned about Boris Johnson taking the helm.
However, some of the most hardline Brexit supporters are getting increasingly anxious that leaving May in charge will lead to an unacceptably soft Brexit.
Some believe the vocal interventions from Johnson, the foreign secretary, on a dividend for the NHS and new Channel bridge link after leaving the EU are designed to position him as the true voice of Brexit in case a leadership challenge comes to pass any time soon.
Challenged by Bloomberg about the growing complaints from within her party, May said she was still focused on the aims set out when she became prime minister, saying she wanted “a country that really works for everyone”.
She said: “I think one of the challenges we have … is those people in our society who feel that globalisation has left them behind, that others have benefited, but not them.”
But she failed to suggest any fresh solutions to that problem, beyond her industrial strategy and “skilling young people”, after 18 months in the job and almost eight years of Conservative rule.
This article was written by Rowena Mason and Peter Walker, for theguardian.com on Thursday 25th January 2018 19.35 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010