Theresa May has thrown a “big rock” into the Conservative Party by claiming she wants to fight the next election, according to a former top Downing Street spin doctor.
Craig Oliver, who served as David Cameron’s director of communications for five years, said May’s determination to carry on as PM until 2022 just “winds a lot of people up”.
The Prime Minister’s comments are a marked contrast to her words to Tory MPs in the immediate aftermath of the party’s disastrous election result, where she vowed to stay in the top job for only “as long as you want me”.
May’s remarks, made during a trade visit to Japan, prompted a mixed reaction from Tory colleagues, with former party chairman Grant Shapps saying “it is too early to be talking about going on and on, as Margaret Thatcher once said.”
Brexit campaigners Peter Bone, James Cleverley and John Redwood all supported her comments.
Speaking on BBC Radio 5Live’s Pienaar’s Politics, Oliver – who quit Downing Street after being on the losing side of the referendum vote – said: “I was genuinely surprised to hear it and I was also genuinely surprised that a lot of the commentary that went around it was people saying ‘well, what do you expect? She had to answer the question.’
“She didn’t have the answer the question in that way. She could have said: ‘I’m in Japan trying to get to a situation to make sure we have a proper trade deal with them when we leave the EU. All my focus is on Brexit and I’m not going to get drawn into side shows.’
“What’s happened as a result of this is they’ve taken a very big rock and thrown it into the pool at precisely the wrong time.
“What they needed to do was say: ‘We’ve got our heads down, we’re working for the country.’
“If they want to stay on in the long term, this is only going to happen organically, this is only going to happen by people saying: ‘You know what, she screwed up in the election but actually she’s doing a very good job.’
“It’s not about asserting yourself in this way because actually that just winds a lot of people up.”
Questions about the length of May’s stay as Prime Minister reached a head last week when the Sunday Mirror reported she had penciled in August 30 2019 as the day she would quit Downing Street.
When asked if she intended to lead the Tories into the next election, May responded: “Yes. There’s been an awful lot of speculation which has no basis in it whatsoever. I’m in this for the long term.”
She added: “I’m not a quitter.”
Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Brexit Secretary David Davis described May as: “A great Prime Minister, I think.”
He added: “I’ve served her the last 12 months. I have never been anything less than impressed in the way she runs the country - that’s what matters to the people.
“Not the politics, running the country, and she does a good job.”