Theresa May responds to claims of a plot among Tory MPs to oust her from Number 10 © PA
Theresa May has hinted that she is likely to reshuffle her government to shore up her authority in the wake of last week’s disastrous party conference.
The reshuffle could dismiss or demote Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary widely seen as undermining Mrs May’s authority.
However, there was debate on Sunday about precisely which personnel changes Mrs May should make, with one Conservative backbencher advocating she dismiss Philip Hammond, the chancellor, rather than Mr Johnson.
Mrs May gave the hint in an interview for the Sunday Times following a calamitous seven days marked most spectacularly by a keynote conference speech marred by an intervention by a comedian, prolonged coughing fits and a malfunctioning backdrop.
The poor performance encouraged renewed plotting by Grant Shapps, the former Conservative chairman, to remove the prime minister from office.
However, as a hostile reception from most MPs to Mr Shapps’ moves appeared to have killed off that initiative, Mrs May suggested in the interview that she was receptive to widespread suggestions she needed to refresh her team.
“I’m the PM and part of my job is to make sure I always have the best people in my cabinet, to make the most of the wealth of talent available in the party,” Mrs May said.
A reshuffle could provide badly needed impetus to Mrs May’s government as MPs return to parliament on Monday for a legislative session that will deal with key aspects of Brexit, including the EU withdrawal bill.
Mrs May will have to decide in any reshuffle whether the risks of having Mr Johnson outside the cabinet and potentially causing trouble outweigh the challenges of keeping him on board. Mr Johnson has undermined the prime minister twice during the past month.
On September 16, he published a 4,200-word essay in the Daily Telegraph widely seen as pushing for a harder line in Brexit negotiations than the prime minister was planning to take. Two weeks later, in an interview with the Sun, he called for any post-Brexit transition to last “not a second” longer than two years, in contrast with the prime minister’s formulation that it would last “around two years”.
The prime minister has previously concluded that the risks of releasing Mr Johnson entirely from the cabinet’s collective responsibility were greater than the frustrations of keeping him in post.
But one senior May loyalist told the Financial Times on Friday that a great deal had changed over the past few days.
One solution might be to move Mr Johnson to a less sensitive post — potentially the cheerleading role of Conservative party chairman.
Mrs May characteristically hedged her bets in the interview on the question of a reshuffle.
“I have a terrific cabinet,” she said. “We have a job to do.”
The potential challenges of a reshuffle were on display on Sunday morning’s political TV programmes as Conservatives made the case for their preferred outcomes.
On the BBC’s Marr Show, Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader who is a long-time critic of Mr Johnson, gave him only lukewarm backing. She noted that in the past few days Mr Johnson had pledged his loyalty to the prime minister and insisted he backed the Brexit policy outlined in last month’s Florence speech.
“I want to see the prime minister hold him to that,” she said.
Ms Davidson added: “If the prime minister believes that he’s the right person to be foreign secretary, she has my full support.”
However, Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for mid-Bedfordshire, urged Mrs May to keep Mr Johnson and instead to dismiss Mr Hammond. The chancellor has been unpopular with pro-Brexit MPs because of his extreme caution about the economic risks of leaving the EU.
“I think he has been deliberately trying to make the Brexit negotiations difficult,” Ms Dorries told ITV’s Peston on Sunday programme.