Prime minister expected to signal at 1922 committee meeting that she will run government in a less controlling way, after carrying out modest reshuffle
Theresa May will appeal to her MPs to throw their weight behind her at a crunch meeting on Monday, as her future hangs in the balance after the Conservatives’ majority was wiped out in Thursday’s general election.
The prime minister is expected to signal to her parliamentary colleagues that she will run her government in a more collegiate, less controlling way, after sacrificing her two closest advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy.
May carried out a modest reshuffle of her top team on Sunday as speculation continued to swirl about her future, including bringing back Michael Gove into government as environment secretary, replacing Andrea Leadsom. Gove crashed out of the cabinet last year after challenging May for the Conservative leadership, stymying Boris Johnson’s chances in the process.
With many backbenchers blaming May for the party’s poor performance at the polls, one senior Conservative said she would have to give a “barnstorming” performance at the meeting of the party’s 1922 committee of MPs to hold on to her job.
George Osborne, who was sacked by May as chancellor last year, described her as a “dead woman walking”, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “It is just how long she is going to remain on death row. I think we will know very shortly. We could easily get to the middle of next week and it all collapses for her.”
Jeremy Corbyn has delayed any reshuffle of his own frontbench team as the party focuses on maximising pressure on the Tories and drafting potential amendments to the government’s Queen’s speech, which is due to be delivered on 19 June.
If she survives, May is likely to have to ditch controversial manifesto policies in order to secure the backing of the House of Commons, and present a stripped-down programme for government, focusing on implementing Brexit and avoiding potential flashpoints.
Financial markets will reopen on Monday morning amid continued uncertainty about whether May can command the loyalty of her own backbenchers, and push key legislation through the House of Commons.
As part of her reshuffle, Damian Green, a longstanding ally who campaigned for remain in last year’s referendum, will be first secretary of state – effectively her deputy.
George Freeman, the MP for Mid Norfolk who chairs May’s Downing Street policy board, described Green’s promotion as “a good sign that the PM’s new government will have a better balance between Brexit and tackling the domestic grievances behind it”.
After the reshuffle, May said in a pooled television clip: “I am pleased that people from across the party have agreed to serve in my cabinet and we are going to be getting on with the job.
“I said during the election campaign if re-elected I would serve a full term … What I am doing now is actually getting on with the immediate job. I think that’s what’s important. I think that’s what the public would expect, they want to see government providing that certainty and stability.”
Johnson, the foreign secretary, flatly denied reports that he is manoeuvring to replace May. In leaked WhatsApp messages that emerged on Sunday, he described the prime minister as “a woman of extraordinary qualities”, and urged colleagues to get “on with the job!”
A spokesman for Johnson said he had spent the weekend in Oxfordshire, “resting”; while allies suggested that he would never challenge a sitting prime minister. But few of Johnson’s parliamentary colleagues doubt that he would make a bid for the leadership if it fell vacant.
One senior Conservative said: “Boris’s antics are seen as an ocean-going disgrace” – echoing criticism first used of him by senior MP Sir Nicholas Soames, who described him during last year’s referendum campaign as an “ocean-going clot”.
May has signalled that she will try to govern with the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, which has 10 MPs at Westminster – but that will still leave her with a wafer-thin majority, heavily reliant on the backing of all her MPs.
Arlene Foster, the DUP’s leader, is expected to travel to London on Tuesday to discuss the details of any deal with the prime minister.
Many pro-Brexit MPs are supporting May, fearing an alternative leader might take a less robust approach when divorce talks with the other 27 EU states begin.
David Davis, the Brexit secretary, said: “I have told anyone who asks that Theresa should stay, in the national interest. Anything else is just self-indulgent. The people elect us to do a job.”
Crispin Blunt, a backbench MP who backed Brexit and chaired the foreign affairs committee in the last parliament, called for his party to exercise “huge discipline” – and delay thinking about the leadership until Brexit negotiations are over.
“The electorate has dealt us a rather tricky hand,” he said. “What we have got to do is hold her in position. We’re probably going to have to boost her confidence, which will have taken a knock. We have got a job to do for the next two years.
Blunt added: “I would have thought the time to return to the leadership question is after Brexit is delivered. We are in a very precarious position as a country, and as a party.”
May is seeking a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP – a looser arrangement than a formal coalition, which would lead to the Northern Irish party backing the Conservatives on major votes.
But some senior Tories have expressed concerns about any linkup with the socially conservative DUP, among them the Scottish leader, Ruth Davidson, who led the party to a strong performance north of the border.
Defence secretary Michael Fallon, also speaking to the BBC, stressed: “We are not in government with the DUP or in coalition with the DUP. They are going to support us on economic and security issues. We do not agree and we do not have to agree with these social issues and I certainly don’t.
“We’re not changing our views on these social issues. They are going to support us on these very big security issues that face this country.”
MPs from the liberal wing of the party, who counted Osborne and David Cameron – both now out of parliament – as among their champions, are casting about for a plausible standard-bearer.
Davidson is a member of the Scottish parliament in Holyrood, not an MP. Home secretary Amber Rudd is considered too vulnerable because of her slim majority of only 346 in her Hastings and Rye seat.
Ryan Shorthouse, director of the liberal Tory thinktank Bright Blue, which is backed by more than a hundred Conservative parliamentarians, said the prime minister should acknowledge that what he called her “Ukip-lite” strategy had failed – and resign. “Conservatives now face a critical choice,” he said. “Either they let a far-left agenda ascend or they act quickly to change their leader and their approach to Brexit.”
Unless May resigns, a challenge can only be launched against her if 48 Conservative MPs – 15% of the total – write to the chairman of the 1922 committee, Graham Brady, saying they have lost confidence in their leade.
Source: The Guardian