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 the 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 last month. But he sparked 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 said 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.
Senior Tories – and some backbenchers – have been quick to defend May although none of them seem to be taking the threat too seriously.
Charles Walker, the vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee, said the attempt to force a leadership contest lacked credibility and was doomed to fail.
The Commons leader, Andrea Leadsom, who ran against May for the leadership in 2016 but pulled out, told BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions that May had the “absolute support” of her cabinet and her party.
“I don’t think that there’s anything like 30 others and I think what Grant Shapps is doing is incredibly unhelpful. Like a lot of my colleagues have said today, he should shut up.”
The Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, said May’s critics should “put up, shut up and get off the stage” and that her party should “get its house in order”.
“I have to say I’ve not got much time for them,” she told the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast. “I think there’s an awful lot of people in our party that need to settle down. I think if the plotters were serious, they would be led by someone a bit more serious [than Shapps].”
Few believe Shapps has much hope of gathering the 48 signatures necessary to trigger a leadership contest. One MP said: “I wouldn’t trust Grant Shapps any further than I could spit.”
A Tory leadership contest can be triggered in two ways: if the leader resigns, as David Cameron did after the EU referendum, or if 15% of the party’s MPs demand one.
In the current parliament, that would mean 48 Tory MPs would have to write to Graham Brady, the chair of the powerful backbench 1922 Committee, to say they have lost confidence in Theresa May.
Once triggered, MPs narrow down the field of potential candidates (five in the 2016 contest) in a series of weekly votes, with the weakest being eliminated each time until two remain. This pair are then presented to party members, who have the final say in a one-member-one-vote contest.
Crucially, if May resigned, she would not be able to stand against her challengers.
The backbencher Vicky Ford said Shapps was out of touch: “He’s not even in our WhatsApp group.” Shapps was reported to have since been added to the group on the messenger app, purely so other members could express their fury at his plot.
Nigel Evans, the MP for the Ribble Valley and a member of the 1922 Committee 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.
But others said the concerns Shapps was voicing were widely felt and that even without the incidents during May’s 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.
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.