A defiant Theresa May has warned that she would fight any attempt by Boris Johnson to topple her as Tory leader and Prime Minister.
May insisted she wanted to lead the Conservatives “for the long term”, suggesting she wanted to contest the next general election despite growing disquiet in her party that she could lose to Jeremy Corbyn.
Speaking to reporters on her trip to Africa, the PM shrugged off speculation that the former foreign secretary would launch a leadership challenge.
“I am in this for the long term. I am in this for delivering for the British people, and that’s what I’m focused on,” she said. “They want us to leave the EU and I and the government will be delivering on that.”
Pressed explicitly on whether she would take on Johnson if he challenged her leadership, May stressed: “I am in it for the long term, I am in this for delivering for the British people.”
Johnson quit the cabinet over the PM’s Chequers compromise plan for the UK’s exit from the EU, declaring that Britain could be “reduced to the status of a colony” of Brussels.
With scores of Tory backbenchers equally unhappy, May’s critics believe that she could face a vote of confidence if she fails to offer reassurances over her plans this autumn.
Under party rules, just 48 Tory MPs’ signatures are needed to trigger a confidence vote.
Margaret Thatcher famously vowed “I fight on, I fight to win” after 40 per cent of her own backbenchers backed a challenge by Michael Heseltine in 1990. She was then persuaded to change her mind and quit two days later.
Johnson is expected to pile on the pressure further at October’s Conservative party conference, when he could be the star turn of the fringe meetings.
But in her remarks to the media, May also dismissed suggestions that she could be booed at the conference by angry party rank and file members.
She said she would use the gathering in Birmingham to set out “what we as a government will be doing not just in relation to the Brexit issue, but what we are doing on the domestic agenda”.
May singled out policies “to actively increase housebuilding so young people have an opportunity to get their feet on to the housing ladder, when so many fear they are not going to be able to do that”.
She also said she wanted to showcase “what we’re doing in technical education to improve opportunities for young people”, and “a sustainable 10-year plan from the NHS to deliver better outcomes for patients”.
May was also asked by ITV News if she had noticed how much Johnson wanted her job. She replied: “I was very pleased that Boris was my Foreign Secretary for the period he was Foreign Secretary.”