Theresa May is expected to face an effort by some Tory MPs to oust her in the autumn, despite her attempt to regain authority over her cabinet by ordering them to stop leaking details of their infighting over Brexit.
With a letter of no confidence already in circulation but only a small number of signatures so far, several MPs said on Monday that May was safe until summer – with colleagues desperate to get to the parliamentary recess and have a break.
But they believed plotting against her would continue after the summer break, with some determined to have her replaced by David Davis, Boris Johnson, Philip Hammond or another senior figure by Christmas.
One week after the heavily leaked cabinet meeting which brought tensions out into public view, the prime minister will remind her ministers of their responsibilities and the need to “get on with delivering Brexit” when they meet on Tuesday.
But her position is far from secure. One senior Tory MP said the success of the effort to topple the prime minister would depend on whether colleagues could be persuaded there is a better candidate.
He said Conservative MPs divided into categories ranging from: “she made her bed and should lie in it”; “she is our prisoner and is serving at the leisure of the party”; and others who want her gone by Christmas. But he questioned whether there would be enough dissent for almost 50 MPs to send letters to the chair of the 1922 backbench committee, Graham Brady, as would be needed to trigger a contest.
Another senior figure claimed that while there was some desire for a leadership contest, there was “unanimous” resistance to anything that could mean a general election, as Tories fear Jeremy Corbyn would be heading to Downing Street.
May told backbench MPs at a summer event that their choice was her or Corbyn as prime minister as she urged them to stop the “backbiting”. One politician at the event said the mood among backbench MPs was a desire for Cabinet ministers to stop causing trouble. One said that briefings against the prime minister were coming from a “few embittered ultras” rather than a broader groundswell.
No 10 is not planning a formal investigation into the leaks but May’s spokesman said the prime minister would use Tuesday morning’s weekly cabinet meeting to insist they stop.
“What I would say is of course cabinet must be able to hold discussions on government policy in private and the prime minister will be reminding her colleagues of that at the cabinet meeting tomorrow,” he said.
“She’ll just be reminding them of their responsibilities and making the point that ministers across government need to be focused on getting on with delivering for the British public.”
Brexit supporting MPs, meanwhile, who have formed the European Research Group, have been discussing their desire to ensure that nothing takes place that could destabilise Britain’s departure from the EU.
The frenzy of anonymous briefings and counter-briefing by allies of cabinet ministers over the weekend suggests they are already squaring up for a possible leadership contest and battle over the future of Brexit.
Allies of Davis appear to be furthest down the road in talking of a leadership bid but, like Hammond, he is viewed with suspicion by some proponents of Brexit, even though he campaigned to leave.
Hammond was the main target of leaks from other ministers about his supposed comments in cabinet, one saying he called public sector workers “overpaid”, the other claiming he said driving modern trains was so easy “even a woman can do it”.
On Monday, the Telegraph then cited an anonymous cabinet colleague as saying Hammond and the Treasury “want to frustrate Brexit” and that the chancellor viewed Brexiters as “pirates”.
In a counter-briefing, an unnamed ally of Hammond told the Sun that the environment secretary, Michael Gove, was the source of some of the leaks from last week’s cabinet meeting. But this was denied by friends of Gove as “simply untrue”. A senior Tory also claimed that Gove and Boris Johnson were behind the briefings against Hammond, saying they were “so obsessed with a hard Brexit that they’re prepared to run the economy off a cliff”.
May attempted to relaunch her faltering leadership last week with a speech saying she wanted to carry out a bold domestic policy agenda as well as Brexit, while challenging Labour and other opposition parties to come up with constructive ideas.
However, it does not appear to have won over some Tory MPs. One pro-Brexit MP said he had been approached to sign a letter of no confidence but had not done so yet only because of doubts about the possible successors, and the threat of a remainer winning the contest.
“If there was someone credible to take over I’d probably back them. But I’m not convinced that where we are now is tenable. There is not a winning situation at the moment,” he said, adding that Davis was probably the best option at the moment.
It comes at a time of intense speculation over May’s leadership and the future of Brexit, with Hammond, Johnson and Davis all potentially vying for supremacy.
Michael Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister, said May’s government was enfeebled and deeply divided. He guessed that the person responsible for the cabinet leak was a leading Brexiter because that was “where the self-interest lies”. But he argued that that person cannot be sacked because the prime minister has no authority.
Lord Heseltine told the World at One: “So you have an enfeebled government. Everybody knows this. I don’t like saying it, but I’m not telling you anything that every journalist is not writing every day ... The Europeans have worked it all out. This is a government without authority. This is a deeply divided government and what they know, what the Europeans know, and what our national press knows is every day there’s a more depressing headline.”