Tory MPs plotting to oust Theresa May are refusing to back down despite a major rearguard action by ministers and loyalist MPs to keep her in Downing Street.
One backbencher texted the Government Chief Whip directly on Thursday evening to say the Prime Minister “needs to go and go now”, HuffPost UK has been told.
The campaign to force May to quit now has the support of five former Cabinet ministers, with a further two expected to join the plot in coming days, one MP revealed.
More than 30 MPs are now ready to privately tell her to step down, with the numbers growing since her party conference speech was spectacularly derailed by her failing voice, a prank protest and collapsing backdrop.
The PM was at home with husband Philip on a rare “day off” in her Maidenhead constituency on Thursday, and MPs keen on her resignation were hoping that Mr May could play a key role in persuading her to give up.
But if she refuses to resign before the weekend, the plotters are prepared for a “slow and gradual” process to remove her and have been taking tips from those who took months to oust Iain Duncan Smith as Tory leader in 2003.
A Praetorian guard of May’s supporters turned out for her on the media, with Cabinet ministers and members of the backbench 1922 Committee pledging their loyalty.
Charles Walker, the committee’s vice chairman, went on the BBC and SkyNews to attack the plotters and insist that the PM was doing “a brilliant job”. “I think she comes out of it as heroic, to be perfectly honest, and strengthened,” he said.
Business Secretary Greg Clark said that many MPs and activists admired May for showing “guts and grace” in finishing her conference speech despite her poor health and a prankster presenting her with a fake P45.
Baroness Jenkin, a fellow founder of the Women2Win campaign to get more female Tory MPs, also said that “people should just back off” and let the PM get on with leading the Government at a crucial time for Brexit and other policies.
One No10 insider said “the position today is much the same as it was yesterday” and senior allies added she had no intention to quit.
One former minister told HuffPost UK that some hoped the PM’s husband would play a key role this weekend, but added that he and fellow critics were prepared to wait months to build enough numbers to persuade her privately to leave office.
“I think Philip might in these circumstances say ‘darling, let’s not do this anymore’. But on balance that’s unlikely and she will need a further shove.”
A backbench MP texted Chief Whip Gavin Williamson directly on Thursday to say May “needs to go and go now”, and whips are aware of the size of the rebellion as key players have been open with No.10 about their intentions.
A couple more names were added to the list of dissenters during the day, but the plotters are ready to wait for May to quit by Christmas or even after the local elections next spring. They claim that even some serving ministers have expressed support but cannot go public.
The last 24 hours had “moved the dial” against her, one said, adding the idea she could remain in Downing Street until Brexit takes place in 2019 was “laughable”.
If the council results are bad on May 3, and London is expected to see a further “Corbyn surge” in the capital, some rebels think it will be “May Day For May”.
Plotters have taken soundings from MPs who organised the overthrow of Duncan Smith in 2003.
It took six months from the first resignation from his Shadow Cabinet until he was defeated in a motion of no confidence, and then succeeded by Michael Howard. “We’re making progress, but we need to be patient,” an MP said.
To trigger a no confidence vote, 48 MPs would have to write to the 1922 committee chairman Graham Brady, but the plotters plan to instead get enough names to informally meet May in person and tell her she had lost their support.
Former minister Ed Vaizey confirmed that “quite a few” of her MPs want her to resign, while senior backbencher Mark Pritchard put on record that at least 30 MPs were involved in the plot to confront her as a delegation.
Speaking to BBC Oxford, the Wantage MP, who was sacked when Mrs May became Prime Minister in July 2016, said a number of Tory MPs “pretty firmly” want her to go. “I think there will be quite a few people who will now be pretty firmly of the view that she should resign.”
One rebel told HuffPost UK they felt May was “a decent woman with a strong sense of duty” but was now harming the Tory party’s popularity and chances of re-election.
They insisted there was “a coalition” of former Remain and Leave supporters and as such wanted a leadership election, rather than a ‘coronation’, to choose a successor to May.
Under the plan, the PM would pre-announce she was stepping down and stay in post to allow the contest to replace her.
However, a senior backbencher and Brexiteer told HuffPost UK that the actions of the plotters was “deeply, deeply dishonourable”. “They should put their names on letters and pin them on a noticeboard,” he said.
“If she’d collapsed on stage, and had an ‘Anthony Eden moment’ [the former PM collapsed due to ill health and quit within two months], then it would be different. But she didn’t. She had a cough and a cold.
“Obviously, we’re unhappy with the past week. But there’s a circling of the wagons going on because the biggest issue right now is Brexit. These people are the dispossessed Cameroons and don’t have any serious numbers. They say they have dozens, I very much doubt that.”
Supporters of the PM also point out that any attempt to force her out would inevitably lead to chaos, as the incoming leader would not be guaranteed the 100% backing of May’s allies, leading to further instability for a minority Government that already relies on the DUP.
Speaking in the annual Cambridge Union ‘no confidence in the Government’ debate on Thursday night, former Government Chief Whip and Cabinet Minister Andrew Mitchell weighed in behind the PM.
“It is not Theresa May’s fault that the Conference Set started to disintegrate or that the Prime Minister was suffering from a serious cold and wracking cough,” he said.
“It took courage of a high order to complete what was an important and interesting speech in impossible circumstances and I think all of us in politics should recognise and respect that.”
Pritchard, a former secretary of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers, tweeted: “Trying to drum up a delegation of 30 MPs to try and circumvent this process is irregular, cowardly and will ultimately fail.
“Any minister with premature ambitions needs to put up or shut up and allow the Prime Minister to get on with her day job.”