Theresa May's deputy urges MPs to 'come together' behind her as Tory infighting spills out into open warfare

Senior Conservative MP tells The Independent: 'This is happening because there is a vacuum of leadership at the top'

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Sunday 28 January 2018 14:04
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David Lidington says Tories who want May out should "look at the bigger picture"

Tory infighting has descended to new lows as Theresa May was urged to “name a date” for her departure, anonymous briefings about the Defence Secretary leaking sensitive information emerged and fresh calls appeared for the Chancellor’s resignation.

Following a week of rumours regarding an increasing number of letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister being to sent to the chair of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, politicians in the party traded public blows, once again exposing the fragility of Ms May’s administration.

One senior Conservative MP told The Independent: “This is happening because there is a vacuum of leadership at the top which allows everyone else to say what they think.”

Former minister Grant Shapps, who led the ultimately unsuccessful coup attempt after the Prime Minister’s infamous conference speech in October, called on the PM to name her departure date, arguing it would remove uncertainty and give her space to pursue her “laudable” objectives.

While he said he had not submitted a letter to the 1922 Committee – 48 are needed from Tory MPs to trigger a leadership contest – Mr Shapps said: “An increasing number of my colleagues have. More are going in this weekend. No one knows quite how many.”

He wrote in The Mail on Sunday: “This uninspiring leadership manifests itself not only through the lens of Cabinet disarray, but through a void in big and bold ideas capable of projecting Britain beyond the trials and tribulations of Brexit.”

The Sunday Times added that one cabinet minister vowed to launch a “suicide bombing” resignation demanding the Prime Minister stand down if colleagues followed their lead. The newspaper added that two former ministers and eight younger MPs privately agreed to submit letters of no confidence.

Respected Conservative backbencher Jonny Mercer also urged the Prime Minister to “face down” domestic challenges such as the NHS, adding: “We need to be doing better, or we will pay the price with the electorate.”

And Heidi Allen, the Tory MP for South Cambridgeshire, tweeted a photo of the Sunday Times front page which carried the headline "Tories in turmoil", adding: "And yet the old guard hangs on in and doesn't understand why we need to change, saying MPs like me aren't 'proper Tories'.

"Good God we need to get a grip and lead. We are letting this country down."

But David Lidington, the newly appointed cabinet minister, sought to calm tensions in the party by highlighting the party’s record in government and urging his colleagues to “come together” and treat each other with “mutual respect”.

Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Mr Lidington said: “I think what I say to all my colleagues is the Conservative family – left, right and centre, because we’re a broad church – needs to come together in a spirit of mutual respect, there are differences in any broad church, and look at what the bigger picture is showing.

“The bigger picture is showing that after eight years in government, we are still neck and neck with the Labour Party in the polls, we’re taking seats off them in places like Bolton in local government elections last week.”

It also came as anonymous briefings emerged in The Sunday Times that Gavin Williamson had leaked intelligence during an interview with The Telegraph, in which he claimed that Russia could cause “thousands and thousands and thousands” of deaths in an attack on Britain’s energy supply.

The claim was immediately rejected by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and allies of the Defence Secretary said it was evidence of “smears” after speculation over his future leadership ambitions.

Rumours circulated Westminster that Mr Williamson was on manoeuvres for the top job after his extraordinary claim about Russia appeared on the same day he admitted to having a “flirtatious” relationship with a former colleague while working for a fireplace manufacturing firm in Yorkshire in 2004.

But Tory backbencher and ally of Boris Johnson, Nadine Dorries, told ITV’s Peston on Sunday that she could say “almost categorically” that Mr Johnson was not behind the briefings after the newspaper said Mr Williamson’s friends indicated so.

“If I were Gavin I’d be looking closer to within his own office within the MoD, it’s not something that Boris would ever do, he wouldn’t dare do it because if he was ever discovered to have categorically done that that would end all his political ambition,” she said.

“It’s nonsense to say that Boris Johnson has done this”.

But responding to articles on Sunday, the Conservative MP George Freeman wrote on Twitter: “Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse. Stories of salon sleaze, spin and vendetta leaking from Cabinet let us all down. The PM is trying to do an almost impossible job and deserves better from people at the top of our party.”

On Sunday, fresh calls were also made from pro-Leave Tory backbenchers for Ms May to sack her Chancellor, Philip Hammond, after he enraged Eurosceptics last week with his claim that UK-EU trade relations would only change “very modestly” after Brexit.

Ms Dorries added: “He has to go, the Chancellor needs to be singing off the Lancaster House hymn sheet along with the Prime Minister, he needs to have the Prime Minister’s back and he doesn’t.

“There is a tactic amongst the Remain-supporting Conservatives and that is to cause as much chaos as possible and they do that by bowling this curveball every now and then, or a hand grenade right into the middle of proceedings whenever we have a lull.

“The Chancellor has not been loyal, he hasn’t got the Prime Minister’s back, what we need is stability.”

And the former cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith told the Sunday Express that the Prime Minister cannot govern with Mr Hammond “sniping from the sidelines”.

He said: “She has got a serious negotiation on and she does not need the Chancellor contradicting government policy. She needs to say to him: ‘You do that again and it will be your last comment as a Cabinet minister.’”

Attempting to reassure discontented backbenchers, Mr Lidington said that the UK will “have the option” to diverge from EU rules during the two-year transition period, adding it would still see “big, big difference” to the current relationship. The cabinet minister insisted Mr Hammond is “fully onboard” with Ms May’s strategy.

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