Theresa May cannot pledge to “go on and on” like Margaret Thatcher once did, former chairman Grant Shapps has warned.
May moved to dispel questions about her premiership on Wednesday by vowing she is in post “for the long term” and would fight the 2022 general election, adding: “I’m not a quitter.”
But her words were given a thumbs-down by some backbench MPs, including Shapps and Nicky Morgan, who said the Tory Party will decide how long she gets to keep the top job following June’s disastrous election campaign.
Asked about the PM’s promise, Shapps said: “This will raise some eyebrows. Let’s see some delivery for the British people, then let’s see where we are.”
He told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “I think it is too early to be talking about going on and on, as Margaret Thatcher once said. Let’s get some progress for the British people first, I think that’s the priority.”
Former PM Thatcher said she wanted to “go on and on” after the 1987 election, and stayed in post until 1990.
Other Tory MPs have come out in support of May’s bold pledge, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, widely regarded as a potential leadership contender.
But Shapps added: “I don’t think there’s an appetite for leadership elections right at this moment” and the Prime Minister should be judged on her performance in the Brexit negotiations but it was “probably the case” that nobody wanted Mrs May to face Jeremy Corbyn at the ballot box again.”
Johnson, on an official visit to Nigeria, said Mrs May was “ideally placed” to deliver Brexit and he was “here to support her”.
In a series of interviews during a visit to Japan for trade talks, May set out her plan to fight on, promising to deliver social reforms that will give the country a “brighter future”.
She said: “I’m in this for the long term. There’s a real job to be done in the United Kingdom. It’s about getting the Brexit deal right, it’s about building that deep and special partnership with the European Union, but it’s also about building global Britain, trading around the world.”
Morgan’s response to her pledge to stay was more nuanced. She told BBC’s Hardtalk that no leader wants to put a date on their departure in advance because it is a sign of “your own political mortality”.
But she added: “I think it’s going to be difficult for Theresa May to lead us into the next general election.”
Tory grandee Lord Heseltine, however, was scathing, telling BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight: “The long term is the difficult one for Theresa May because I don’t think she’s got a long term.”
Labour’s shadow cabinet minister, Jon Trickett, meanwhile, said the public would reject May.
He said: “The Prime Minister is deluding herself. Neither the public nor Tory MPs believe her fantasy of staying on till 2022.
“Theresa May leads a zombie government. The sooner the public has the chance to vote out her and her government the better for our country’s future.”
Some Conservative MPs were supportive of May.
Senior Tory MP Nigel Evans, who was openly critical of the 2017 Tory campaign, insisted that the Prime Minister’s vow to continue was “great news”.
“We need no more instability whilst the PM focuses on disentangling the UK from the EU,” he said.
“We have the right leader and PM to deliver this for us.”