A defiant Theresa May has warned rebellious Tory MPs that she is “not a quitter” and signalled she will fight the next general election as party leader.
Despite a fresh bout of speculation that she could face a vote of no confidence, the Prime Minister said she was focused on the “long term job to be done” and insisted she was delivering for the public on key issues like Brexit, jobs, health, education and housing.
She also shrugged off claims that she was a “tortoise” on delivering radical policies, adding “I have never tried to compare myself to any animal, or bird or car”.
May has come under unprecedented pressure in recent days from Eurosceptics worried about a ‘no change’ Brexit transition period and from other backbenchers concerned at her lack of vision on policy and her competence following a botched Cabinet reshuffle.
With just 48 MPs needed to trigger a confidence vote, former ministers have urged her to avoid a direct challenge by announcing she won’t lead the party into the 2022 election.
Some MPs want her to quit if May’s local elections are disastrous, while others believe possible successors such as Boris Johnson, David Davis, Jeremy Hunt and Amber Rudd would have a better chance if she stepped aside straight after the UK quits the EU next March.
But in a briefing to reporters on her RAF jet on the way to a three-trip in China, May again called her critics’ bluff and said that she was staying put as PM and offered no departure date.
Asked if she was confident that she would lead the Tory party into the next election, and if it was up to her or her colleagues to make such a decision, she replied: “First and foremost, I’m serving my country, my party.”
“I’m not a quitter and there’s a long term job to be done. And that job is about getting the best Brexit deal, about ensuring that we take back control of our money, our laws, our borders, that we can sign trade deals around the rest of the world. But it’s also about our domestic agenda.”
May claimed she was delivering on the issues her “colleagues” in the party had recommended to her, with a stamp duty cut in the Budget, the first steps to integrate health and social care and new figures showing the exam gap between rich and poor pupils was narrowing.
The PM admitted that housing was “one of the areas that we need to be pushing on” and conceded that “there’s always more for us to be able to do to talk to people about what we’re achieving”.
But when pressed again on whether she was the right person to lead the country, she made clear she was proud of her record.
“What I think is important for colleagues and for the public is actually what we’re doing as a government and what we’re achieving.”
When asked by reporters if she would stay and fight any confidence vote, if 48 letters were submitted to backbench chairman Sir Graham Brady, May replied: “You always like talking about hypothetical situations. Let’s talk about where we are now and what we are doing now.
“Here I am, taking a trade delegation to China, here I am going to China to enhance the British economy and enhance global Britain. We’re very clear: when we come out of the European Union, we want to see a Britain that is standing tall and proud in the world, independent, signing these trade deals around the world, playing its role across the world.
“At the same time as we’re ensuring we’ve delivered the best Brexit deal and delivering on the domestic agenda. That’s what my focus is on: actually making sure we’re delivering for the public.”
Former Tory minister Rob Halfon last weekend urged May to drop her “tortoise” approach to policy change, and suggested she should be like a “lion” in delivering real change for voters.
“I have never tried to compare myself to any animal, or bird or car or whatever sort of comparisons that sometimes people use,” she said.
May suggested she would not seek to change the Tory party’s rules, which allow anonymous MPs to automatically trigger a confidence vote if 15% of the Parliamentary party want one.
Asked if she was effectively daring her critics to write letters if they wanted to, she replied: “I It’s a matter for the party. The rules that are set are a matter for the party. It’s always been written by the [backbench] 1922 [Committee]. They went through a long process in terms of writing those leadership rules.”
And when asked if the current rash of speculation about her leadership was just ‘a phase’ of backbench restlessness, May said: “I think what MPs worry about most is what actually is the government doing in terms of delivering for their constituents”.
She listed the lowest unemployment since 1975, increases in the National Living Wage, more children going to better quality schools, suggesting voters were not as obsessed by Westminster intrigue as some of her MPs.
“All of these things are making a difference to people’s lives on a day to day basis. That’s what people raise when you go on the doorsteps and talk to people. It’s those issues that matter to them and that’s what we’re delivering on.”
She reiterated the message later a press conference in Beijing, alongside Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who said Brexit would not change positive China-UK relations.
In a further signal of her determination to stay in No10 for the long term, May dismissed claims that the current bout of Tory infighting risked a Jeremy Corbyn government.
“We are in Government. The next general election is not until 2022,” she said.