The ringleader of the Tory plot to oust Theresa May has been roundly condemned by senior party figures as the UK Prime Minister promised to provide “calm leadership”.
Mrs May brushed aside calls from rebel Tory MPs to stand aside and said she had the “full support” of her Cabinet in her first public appearance since her mishap-strewn conference speech. Meanwhile, former party chairman Grant Shapps was slapped down by a string of colleagues after it emerged he was the driving force behind the attempted coup.
Mr Shapps, who has claimed to have the backing of around 30 MPs – with some Cabinet members also privately offering support – said the demands for an election were growing. But Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom said he should “shut up” and Charles Walker, vice chairman of the powerful Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, said the attempt to force a leadership contest lacked credibility and was doomed to fail.
Tory MP Michael Fabricant described Mr Shapps as “embittered” while colleague Vicky Ford dismissed Mr Shapps as “completely out of touch”, revealing “he’s not even in our WhatsApp group”. Mr Shapps was reportedly later added to the group on the app, simply so colleagues could make clear their fury at his move.
Mrs Leadsom, who ran against Mrs May for the party leadership in 2016 only to pull out of the contest, said: “I don’t think that there’s anything like 30 others and I think what Grant Shapps is doing is incredibly unhelpful.
“Like a lot of my colleagues have said today, he should shut up.” She told BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions that Mrs May “has the absolute support of her entire Cabinet and of her party”. Arriving for a charity event in her Maidenhead constituency, the Prime Minister was determined to present an image of business as normal.
“Now what the country needs is calm leadership, and that’s what I am providing with the full support of my Cabinet,” she said. “Next week I am going to be updating MPs on my Florence speech, which has given real momentum to the Brexit talks, and I will also be introducing a draft Bill to cap energy prices, which will stop ordinary working families from being ripped off.”
After Mr Shapps was named by The Times as the leader of a group of around 30 Tory MPs planning to send a delegation to Mrs May to tell her she must go, he accused the party whips of leaking his name in an attempt to “smoke out” the rebels.
The plan, he said, had been for a group – including five ex-Cabinet ministers – to approach Mrs May in private with a list of names to avoid the “embarrassment” of a formal leadership challenge. But those loyal to the Prime Minister said it was clear that the rebels lacked the 48 MPs they needed to force a contest under the party rules, and questioned whether they could even muster as many as 30.
Mr Shapps insisted support for a leadership election was growing among a “broad spread” of MPs from across the party. “They are Remainers, they are Brexiteers,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “A growing number of my colleagues, we realise that the solution isn’t to bury our heads in the sand and just hope things will get better.
“It never worked out for (Gordon) Brown or (John) Major and I don’t think it is going to work out here either.” He was angrily denounced by MPs loyal to the Prime Minister, with Mr Walker dismissing his supporters as a “coalition of the disappointed” who had been overlooked for promotion.
“Number 10 must be delighted to learn that it is Grant Shapps leading this alleged coup,” he told the BBC.
“Grant has many talents but the one thing he doesn’t have is a following in the party. I really think this is now just going to fizzle out.
“What you are seeing here is probably the coalition of disappointed people who think their brilliant political talents have not been fully recognised.”
Senior ministers continued to rally round Mrs May, with Environment Secretary Michael Gove – another contender in last year’s leadership contest – saying the “entirety” of the Cabinet wanted her to carry on.
“She showed an amazing degree of resilience and courage this week, of a piece with the fantastic leadership she has shown through the time that she has been Prime Minister,” he said. Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson – who has been tipped as a potential successor to Mrs May – hit out at the plotters.
“I have to say I’ve not got much time for them. I really don’t think that having a bit of a cold … when you are trying to make a speech changes the fundamentals of whether Theresa May is the right person to lead the country,” she told the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast.
“I think there’s an awful lot of people in our party that need to settle down.”