Theresa May has dismissed the idea she might be ousted by disgruntled Conservative MPs, saying she will carrying on providing “calm leadership” as prime minister and that she has the complete support of her cabinet.
Speaking to reporters in her Maidenhead constituency after Grant Shapps, the former Tory party chairman, said even some of her ministers say privately she should step aside, May insisted she planned to carry on with business as usual.
“Now, what the country needs is calm leadership, and that’s what I’m providing, with the full support of my cabinet,” she said. “And next week I’m going to be updating MPs on my Florence speech, which has given real momentum to the Brexit talks.
“And I will also be introducing a draft bill to cap energy prices, which will stop ordinary working families form being ripped off.”
Asked about the efforts led by Shapps to gather sufficient support among Tory MPs to force a leadership contest following a disastrous party conference, May reiterated her point.
She said: “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.”
Shapps, who served as Tory chair for nearly three years, has emerged as the ringleader of a backbench plot. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the solution to the leadership crisis was not “to bury our heads in the sand”.
Shapps said he had the support of about 30 MPs, including five former cabinet ministers, and suggested some cabinet ministers privately agreed but would be reluctant to back him because they were on the “payroll”.
The environment secretary, Michael Gove, appeared on the programme to lend his support to May, saying she had “shown grace and grit” this week and a leadership election was not the correct way forward.
Charles Walker, the vice-chairman of the influential Tory backbench 1922 Committee, slapped down Shapps, saying: “No 10 must be delighted that it’s Grant Shapps leading this alleged coup. Grant has many talents but one thing he doesn’t have is a following in the party, so really I think this is going to fizzle out to be perfectly honest.
“What you’re seeing here is the coalition of disappointed people who think their brilliant political talents have not been fully recognised. It doesn’t reflect well on them and it doesn’t reflect well on Grant Shapps.”
Shapps’ predecessor as party chairman, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, also had strong words about his actions.
Asked by BBC Radio 4’s World at One what her message was, she replied: “My message to Grant is, really, shut up. If there’s one thing Grant has done, if there’s one positive that’s come out of this, it’s that he has united the party and large sections of the public behind Theresa May.
“It’s time for politicians to put their personal interests to one side and get on with the job the public has elected us to do.”
But Shapps said “a growing number” of MPs backed his cause. He said: “I believe Theresa May is very decent person and unfortunately fought an election that didn’t work out. We’ve not really managed to see that relaunch.
“There’s that sort of lack of discipline in the cabinet and party conference this week and I think a growing number of my colleagues realise the solution isn’t to bury our heads in the sand and hope things will get better. It never got better for [Gordon] Brown and [John] Major and I don’t think it’s going to work out here either.”
The group of Tory rebels have long been critical of May but have been spurred into action after her conference speech on Wednesday was marred by mishaps. A prankster handed her a fake P45, she struggled to deliver her remarks because of an incessant cough, and there were problems with the backdrop.
Shapps said he had hoped to speak to the prime minister privately but the Tory party whips had unmasked him in the Times newspaper. He revealed that No 10 was aware of his discontent and had urged him not to go public.
He said the group of MPs supporting him included Brexiters and those who supported remaining in the European Union.
“The reality is most people are looking at this and saying, ‘Hold on a minute, let’s not bury our heads in the hands’ … I say most, it’s not most because you’ve got a very large payroll of people who are essentially paid to be in the cabinet.
“But people who are dispassionate and look at this realise probably the time is to have a leadership election.”
Asked if cabinet ministers were loyal to the PM, he said: “In private not all of them.”
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, and signal 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 final 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.
Before Gove’s appearance on the programme, Shapps predicted the environment secretary would “very eloquently tell you why it’s all fine and we should push on and it will all be OK, and I’m simply saying the history says you can’t just carry on”.
Gove said on the show: “No one is burying their heads in the sand. What we’re doing is concentrating on delivering and governing effectively. The critical thing is the PM has been doing a fantastic job. She showed an amazing degree of resilience and courage this week, of a piece with the fantastic leadership she’s shown throughout the time she has been prime minister.
“The truth is the overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs, the truth is the entirety of the cabinet, the truth is the overwhelming majority of people, want the prime minister to concentrate on doing the job that 14 million people elected her to do earlier this year.”