Theresa May’s deputy has urged the Conservatives to “come together” amid an apparently intensifying battle to succeed her.
Cabinet Office minister David Lidington called for “mutual respect” and highlighted the Tory Government’s record in office as he appealed to colleagues to look at the “bigger picture”.
It comes amid growing Tory discontent over the Prime Minister’s leadership and rumours that a challenge is close to being triggered, as well as an apparent briefing war between potential contenders Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson.
Allies of the Defence Secretary said he was the victim of “smears” after anonymous briefings from Mr Johnson’s Foreign Office and elsewhere appeared in the Sunday newspapers, in what has been seen as an early skirmish in a potential leadership battle ahead.
But Nadine Dorries, an ally of Mr Johnson, insisted she could say “almost categorically” that the Foreign Secretary was not behind the hostile briefings about Mr Williamson.
She told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I can almost categorically say that Boris Johnson is not behind those leaks about Gavin Williamson in the paper this morning.
“If I were Gavin I’d be looking closer to within his own office within the MoD, it’s not something 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.
“It’s a nonsense to say that Boris Johnson has done this.”
Amid the apparent infighting, Mr Lidington told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “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.
“And the other thing my colleagues need to remember is look at last week’s news – unemployment, lowest level for 40 years… new borrowing figures lower than expected, new growth figures higher than expected.”
A Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesman denied suggestions that Mr Williamson leaked intelligence or released classified material in an interview in which he warned that Russia could could cause “thousands and thousands and thousands” of deaths in an attack on Britain’s energy supply.
It is understood that GCHQ and MI6 have also confirmed that no intelligence was compromised despite briefings.
But amid reported complaints from the Foreign Office about the interview’s “tone”, sources close to the Defence Secretary said “people were using the opportunity to smear him”.
Mr Williamson raised speculation he was on leadership “manoeuvres” this week after giving an interview on the same day as his Russia comments, in which he admitted infidelity while working for a fireplace manufacturing firm in Yorkshire in 2004.
He said he admitted to his wife Joanne that he engaged in a “flirtatious” relationship with a co-worker, confessing they shared a kiss a “couple of times”.
Meanwhile, Damian Green, who was sacked from his role as Mrs May’s de facto deputy following allegations about pornography on his office computer, denied “liking” a tweet in which Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard described Mrs May as “hopeless”, claiming it was a “mistake”.
Respected Tory backbencher and former soldier Johnny Mercer urged the PM to “face down” domestic challenges such as the NHS as well as dealing with Brexit.
The Plymouth Moor View MP told the Mail on Sunday: “We need to be doing better, or we will pay the price with the electorate.”
Asked about Mrs May’s performance, he stopped short of calling for Mrs May to step down, saying: “I’m not going to comment on the Prime Minister.”
Former minister Grant Shapps, who led a botched coup attempt after Mrs May’s mishap-strewn conference speech in October, urged the PM to “name a date” when she will stand down, arguing it would remove uncertainty and give her space to pursue her “laudable” objectives.
Tory former minister Grant Shapps led a botched coup attempt against Theresa May in October (Ben Birchall/PA)
He said he had not submitted a letter to the 1922 Committee, 48 of which are needed to trigger a leadership contest, but added: “An increasing number of my colleagues have. More are going in this weekend. No one knows quite how many.”