POLITICS
04/06/2018 22:30 BST | Updated 05/06/2018 08:51 BST

How This Summer's Tory Drinks Parties Will Fuel Leadership Plots

These are the MPs who will be gathering support over glasses of warm prosecco

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MPs returned to Westminster this week, gearing themselves up for what is set to be a busy seven weeks before a long summer break.

Luckily for these hardworking public servants, the Westminster drinks parties will soon be in full flow, allowing them ample opportunity to sip slightly-too-warm prosecco and trade gossip away from the corridors of power.

Of course, some MPs see these parties not as a chance to relax, but a chance to recruit.

Speculation over Theresa May’s leadership has been on a rolling boil since the disastrous 2017 election, but a Conservative Home survey of party members published on Monday shows the desire for change could be about to spill over.

Some 69% of members want May to either quit now or before the 2022 election. That rating is the third worst for the PM since last year’s vote, and is no doubt allied to the Government’s perceived stagnation over Brexit.

As Conservative Home’s Paul Goodman notes: “Her best rating came in February in the aftermath of her impressive handling of the Salisbury attack. 

“The only other time it has dipped below 60 per cent was in December, in the wake of that month’s draft agreement with the EU (the ‘joint report’).”

Against this backdrop, this year’s summer parties will see more plotting and planning than usual, and a useful guide to who is laying the groundwork for an offensive comes by looking at those lined up to speak.

On Wednesday evening, Boris Johnson will be kicking off the season with a speech at the Conservative Way Forward (CWF) summer party. The group, set up in 1991 to staunchly defend Thatcherism, has an uncanny knack of supporting the winners of leadership contests, and so is not a bad place to set out your stall.

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Boris Johnson will be kicking off the summer party season in Westminster

Not that Johnson needs much help in that regard. A Tory source revealed the Foreign Secretary has been having groups of MPs into his office for drinks on a regular basis, with a focus on getting to know members of the 2015 and 2017 intake.

Indeed, one event for ministerial aides known as PPS’s caused a headache for Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis, who had organised a drinks party for the same group of MPs on the same night.

According to one source, Johnson’s event was by far and away the more popular.

Johnson will not be the only MP at the CWF drinks on Wednesday. Fellow Brexiteer and former Cabinet colleague Priti Patel is also set to be in attendance – indeed the email to CWF members inviting them to the event was sent from Patel.

The former International Development Secretary has been working the tea rooms hard in recent weeks and making her displeasure with the current leadership quite clear, according to one source.

She broke cover at the weekend, attacking Theresa May and Philip Hammond for “talking down our country” when it comes to Brexit. 

“I actually resent the negativity,” she said.

A joint ticket of Johnson and Patel could be an attractive prospect for Brexiteer MPs who feel that May is simply allowing the Government to drift on to the rocks, and the turn-out at the CWF drinks will provide something of an indication of who wants to sign up to their crew. 

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Priti Patel has been working the tea rooms in Parliament, according to a Tory source

Speaking of joint tickets, Michael Gove and Ruth Davidson could prove to be the most unlikely of partnerships since Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher patched up their differences.

The pair appeared together at the launch of the new Onward think-tank last month, and rumours the devout Brexiteer and passionate Remainer could form a healing partnership in the name of peace, love and understanding has certainly piqued the interest of some MPs.

The Defra Secretary is keen to show there is more to him than Brexit and betrayal, and as one of the leading advocates of Cameroonism - which brought the Tories back to power after 13 years in opposition - Gove is positioning himself as the person to reboot that modernising agenda.

As one MP put it: “What Gove is doing at Environment is remarkable - he’s delivering the 2015 manifesto having lost the 2017 election.”

Another MP set to deliver a drinks party speech is Housing Minister Dominic Raab. The Esher and Walton MP sits in the sweet spot when it comes to what Tories are looking for in a replacement for Theresa May: he has ministerial experience but is not regarded as one of the “old guard”.

It will be worth seeing whether his speech to the Freer think-tank on Monday July 16 sticks to his housing brief, is a general ‘up at em’ speech for activists or sees him deliver a broader address setting out his vision for the country.

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Dominic Raab is one to watch when it comes to the next generation of Tory leadership contenders

Of course, it is not just those speaking at events that are on maneuvers. Amber Rudd “has been getting stuck in from day one” following her resignation as Home Secretary in April, according to one Tory MP, and her presence at the launch of Onward last month showed she has not retreated into exile following her dethronement.

She certainly has the financial clout to get a leadership campaign off the ground, having raised £23,500 in donations before she left office. The official line is that money is to help her cling on to her seat in Hastings and Rye, which she won by just 346 votes in the 2017 election.

Hacks will be closely monitoring which summer parties Rudd attends, and more importantly, which MPs act as impromptu waiting staff to make sure her hand is never wanting for a glass of the bubbly stuff.

Another MP dubbed to be maneuvers is, appropriately enough, the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. Ever since his surprise promotion from Chief Whip last November, Williamson has been seen as a man in a hurry to climb the greasy poll.

He has been working hard to woo The Sun to demonstrate he is in touch with the working man and woman beyond Westminster, although he is perhaps most well-known outside the bubble for telling Russia to “go away” and “shut up”.

That is perhaps until last week, when Richard Madeley “terminated” an interview with him after the Defence Secretary repeatedly refused to answer questions about the comments.

A good event for plot-spotting is the Policy Exchange drinks, scheduled for Wednesday June 20. Traditionally held in the grounds of Westminster Abbey, the event attracts a good range of eager backbenchers, policy wonks and ambitious ministers.

When it comes to the speaker, Policy Exchange always keeps its cards close to its chest, and while this year is no exception there is no doubt a top name will be speaking at its drink party. 

The most exclusive summer party is probably the one thrown by The Spectator. Held in its offices on the edge of St James’ Park, the event traditionally sees the Prime Minister turnout to rub shoulders – sometimes literally thanks to the relatively small garden - with the designated beautiful people from the world of politics and journalism.

Penciled in for the beginning of July, it will be interesting to see if former Tory Ministers Grant Shapps and Andrew Mitchell will be on the guest list. It was the plotting of that pair last summer which prompted then-Justice Minister David Lidington to dismiss rumours of a leadership challenge as MPs having “too much sun and too much warm prosecco”.  

Given the battles ahead for Theresa May, the temperature of the bubbly being handed round will be the least of concerns for the PM’s allies.