The Tory party is in a furious mood following Theresa May’s conference speech. MPs are swearing, ranting, and muttering dire threats about the object of their anger. Helpfully for the Prime Minister, though, the bulk of the anger has little to do with her and everything to do with the two men MPs suspect are trying to destabilise her: Grant Shapps and Boris Johnson.
After extensive conversations with MPs from across the intakes, senior backbenchers and Cabinet Ministers, the Spectator understands that these two men will find it far more difficult to walk back into Parliament when it returns on Monday than the Prime Minister will. She was the one who gave a speech which fell apart, but the attempts by the Foreign Secretary and the former Party Chairman to undermine their leader seem to have fallen apart, too.
Shapps was outed by the Tory whips overnight as the chief agitator against the Prime Minister. The Spectator understands that he had started ringing around MPs and unsuccessful candidates the day after the snap election result, suggesting that they needed to start working against her. He has argued that it is better and safer for him to collect names of those who want May to resign than it is for those people to send letters to 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady, because they ‘might leak’. This has infuriated senior backbenchers all the more: despite the best efforts of rebels, persistent members of the press and the party whips, Brady has never divulged any details of how many letters calling for a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister he has in his desk at any one time, even when rumours circulate for months about how many there are, as they did under David Cameron.
The former minister had seemed ‘out of sorts’ over the past few weeks, according to friendly colleagues, while Cabinet Ministers who knew him less well observe that he had also become oddly friendly and keen for a chat. But even those who agree with his assessment of May’s lack of authority think that he either lacks the credibility to be able to lead a successful coup against her, or that a coup involving angry Tory men would put the Conservatives right back in the ‘Nasty Party’ category. One MP who wants May to go as soon as possible predicts:
‘Don’t underestimate the backlash against the ‘nasty party’ that will result if she is forced out by a bunch of nasty men. Don’t forget how awful it was when Mrs Thatcher went. Although Theresa May is not Mrs Thatcher at all, nevertheless the images of her crying and being pushed out of Downing Street would be disastrous. The best option is that friends will tell her that we cannot go on like this and she steps down.’
There is certainly a huge amount of rage from female MPs and ministers about the way the instability seems to be caused by their male colleagues. ‘It’s disgruntled sacked men who think they should be more important than they are, and who are waving their small willies,’ says one minister. A member of the Cabinet says ‘I find it incredibly disappointing: if I call [Shapps] a tosser, that would be me on a good day. They are all boys, gobbing away. They are going to be in their constituencies this weekend and their party members will tell them to get a fucking grip.’
Another backbencher who doesn’t support the Shapps action nonetheless thinks this is the start of a period of such serious instability that the Prime Minister’s days are numbered. ‘I’m totally furious about Grant, but there is only one direction for us to go in. I think when the transition deal is signed in December, that will be our flash point. It’s all carefully orchestrated and they are whipping it up now so that it reaches a momentum. I don’t think this is really their end game: I think it’s just the beginning.’
Certainly no-one is saying May can lead the party into the next election. And only a couple – mainly the most newly-elected and youngest MPs – are entertaining the possibility that the Prime Minister can stay on until March 2019. The majority of MPs think May should stay on into the new year.
This may mean that the Shapps coup is ultimately successful even if it appears to fall flat on its face over the weekend. Certainly most MPs don’t want to go anywhere near what they already regard to be a deeply embarrassing act of revenge from someone who feels mistreated by the party leadership. ‘This is a man with a grudge,’ says one Tory MP. ‘When he was chairman he removed two of May’s top team Stephen Parkinson and Nick Timothy from the candidates’ list. He could have said this any day of the week.’
There’s also a feeling that the only real names Shapps has on his list – a list which is likely emerge in the coming hours and which the whips seem to be being fairly loose-tongued about in conversations with colleagues – are bitter Cameroons. These are the Freezerites: people who share George Osborne’s view that they want Theresa May chopped up in a freezer. ‘If they’re the only ones saying it, it’s not a serious point,’ explains one member of the government.
There is also deep suspicion about how many names Shapps actually has. He has claimed that there are around 30 MPs who support the call for May to step down. But one senior backbencher suggests that ‘if he had sufficient support, he would do it and not just talk about it. He certainly seems to be having the opposite effect on colleagues. There is quite a lot of sympathy and good will for the Prime Minister from colleagues at the moment. He will just piss people off and he’s not hugely popular.’
One Tory source suggests Shapps could be a ‘secret Mayite’ for taking ownership of the whole plot and therefore undermining it straight away.
Some MPs in the 2015 and 2017 intakes actually think the speech may even have helped May. ‘Perversely I think it may have helped her as we have now become her human shield,’ says one senior member of the 1922 Committee. ‘Grant Shapps was not on the Tory WhatsApp group until today because he is so disliked: that means he doesn’t understand the mood in the party.
‘He doesn’t see what we are saying so he thought we’d have a go but it hasn’t worked.’
Charles Walker, the Secretary of the 1922 Committee, is so angry with his colleagues that he has some life advice for them. ‘I’m fed up. They are fucking arseholes. Let’s have an election in the next few weeks if they want it and get Jeremy Corbyn in. The party is populated by some crashing bores who have nothing better going on in their lives and it’s really showing now. They need to get a life, get some perspective and get a hobby!’
MPs have been using their WhatsApp group today to either sharply criticise Shapps or make a point of pledging loyalty to May and claim they’ve never ever been disloyal to her. Boris Johnson has been telling colleagues that they must read Amber Rudd’s Telegraph piece calling on colleagues to get behind May.
But there are also rumblings against Boris. His allies are aware of plans to give him a dressing down at the 1922 Committee on Wednesday, and a number of Cabinet ministers have predicted that he will find many cold shoulders turned against him when he enters the tearoom on Monday. ‘The Prime Minister was so much more focused on her Wednesday speech because of Boris’s activities of the last 10 days,’ argues one of his Cabinet colleagues. ‘Things would have been much less intense had it not been for him. He created the context in which that speech was given. And the prankster [who handed May a P45 as she was speaking] was referring to Boris.’
The Foreign Secretary might argue that his interventions were only his attempt to stop Soft Brexiteers in the Cabinet having their way on important issues such as the transition period. But the reason so many MPs are sticking by May for the time being is that they are desperately worried a leadership contest could undermine Britain’s Brexit negotiations even to the point that Brexit doesn’t happen. Many Brexiteers suspect a Remain plot to get a ‘real Remainer’ into Number 10 to pause the Brexit negotiations and then claim that leaving the European Union is an impossible, terrible idea for Britain and that it shouldn’t happen at all. Others are simply worried that a government in total turmoil will make life much easier for the EU negotiators as talks enter a particularly sensitive phase this week.
A number of MPs and ministers have told the Spectator that they will back Boris but not if he moves against the Prime Minister now, as it is not the right time.
So what can May do to prevent Shapps causing such instability in the party that even currently loyal MPs conclude that there is nothing for it but to drain the swamp by holding a leadership contest? The party is divided over whether a reshuffle which would involve Boris being sacked is a safe option. Some argue that Philip Hammond has been just as disloyal and so to sack the Foreign Secretary would mean May would have to sack her Chancellor too, which is impossible. Others think a few judicious dressings down would be just what the Prime Minister needs to do to show she’s still a politician made of iron, not one slowly melting. There is also talk now that she should do a reshuffle that doesn’t dispense with Boris’s services but does promote younger talent so as to pave the way for an eventual suitable successor. And others still think a series of big yet uncontroversial policy announcements would help set the party back on a more serious track, though the Prime Minister should really have done this in her speech.
There is also clearly an effort underway from the whips to increase the peer pressure from angry MPs on anyone who seems vaguely sympathetic to Shapps’ line of thinking. This might work in the short-term, making it uncool to be a rebel. But it’s still not clear how long the Prime Minister can really weather the instability that a very bad conference has sparked.