Axe old guard to ad­vance new stars, se­nior Tories tell May

Shake-up urged af­ter a trau­matic con­fer­ence week for the PM and her party

The Guardian Weekly - - Uk News - Michael Sav­age and Toby Helm

Theresa May must ap­point a new gen­er­a­tion of MPs to top jobs to breathe new life into the Con­ser­va­tive party and res­cue her pre­mier­ship, donors, min­is­ters and grandees have warned.

Se­nior Tory fig­ures said that, while May has no long-term fu­ture as prime min­is­ter, she can se­cure a legacy of “restart­ing the party” by go­ing ahead with a bold but risky min­is­te­rial clearout in the com­ing weeks. The plan is be­ing widely sup­ported by fig­ures op­posed to a Boris John­son takeover. They be­lieve May can de­prive the for­eign sec­re­tary of reach­ing No 10 by stay­ing in post and plac­ing tal­ented younger MPs in the shop win­dow.

The prime min­is­ter is be­ing pressed to trig­ger the shake-up im­me­di­ately af­ter the lat­est round of Brexit talks with EU lead­ers later this month. Down­ing Street said any talk of an im­mi­nent reshuf­fle was “spec­u­la­tion”.

Party whips have told the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice there is sig­nif­i­cant sup­port for the move. It comes af­ter an at­tempt last week by for­mer Tory chair­man Grant Shapps to garner sup­port for May’s re­moval, and an Opinium poll for the Ob­server sug­gest­ing the Con­ser­va­tives are seen as more di­vided than Labour for the first time since Jeremy Cor­byn’s Labour lead­er­ship win. Al­most half (47%) think the Tories are di­vided, up from 40% be­fore the party con­fer­ences, while 42% think Labour is split, down from 48%.

Tory rebels have long been crit­i­cal of May, but were spurred into ac­tion af­ter her party con­fer­ence speech last Wed­nes­day was marred by mishaps. A prankster handed her a fake P45 (end of em­ploy­ment) form, she strug­gled to speak be­cause of a cough and there were prob­lems with the back­drop as let­ters fell off the wall. While many Tory MPs sym­pa­thised with that, they were alarmed by the lack of ideas from se­nior fig­ures. Oth­ers were con­cerned by “Labour-lite” poli­cies on coun­cil hous­ing and an en­ergy price cap.

How­ever, a ma­jor reshuf­fle is risky, with some fear­ing those sacked will help agi­tate for May’s early re­moval. Al­lies of John­son are con­fi­dent he will not be sacked or moved, be­liev­ing his in­ter­ven­tions on Brexit have made him im­pos­si­ble to shift.

One ma­jor Tory backer said that an im­me­di­ate change of lead­er­ship was “the last thing” most Con­ser­va­tives wanted. “If we can get some time to find a com­pletely new can­di­date like we did with [David] Cameron, that would eas­ily be the most sen­si­ble way to restart the party. She des­per­ately needs a reshuf­fle to get some ex­po­sure to the pub­lic on who they are. The re­cent in­takes have been quite good.” A se­nior min­is­ter also said May should “be quite bru­tal”, mov­ing out sev­eral of the old guard, in­clud­ing John­son. A for­mer cabi­net min­is­ter added: “[Later this month] we have an im­por­tant Euro­pean coun­cil meet­ing. Per­haps im­me­di­ately af­ter that she needs to have a proper reshuf­fle and pro­mote the young bloods, bring them for­ward to see what they are like. It shows con­fi­dence.”

Lord He­sel­tine, deputy prime min­is­ter to John Ma­jor, pub­licly urged May to “go down fight­ing” and waste no time in ap­point­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of MPs, de­spite the dan­gers. “We have a rel­a­tively short win­dow un­til the next elec­tion – I think two years,” he said. “The idea that Mrs May can lead us through Brexit and have a new leader in time for the next elec­tion is fan­ci­ful. She should cre­ate the op­por­tu­nity for the party to choose not just a dif­fer­ent singer, but a dif­fer­ent song.”

Among the mod­ernisers look­ing for a likely new leader there is ad­mi­ra­tion for Am­ber Rudd, the home sec­re­tary, but also lin­ger­ing doubts about her abil­ity to lead when she has such a pre­car­i­ously small ma­jor­ity in her Hast­ings and Rye seat. John­son and David Davis, the Brexit sec­re­tary, are seen as the most likely lead­ers should May go early. While party whips were sure Shapps did not have the sup­port of the 48 Tory MPs re­quired to trig­ger a lead­er­ship con­test, May’s ten­ure is far from safe. She now faces del­i­cate EU talks, a dif­fi­cult bud­get and a cabi­net clash over Bri­tain’s fu­ture EU re­la­tion­ship – any of which could has­ten her de­par­ture.

For­mer prime min­is­ter John Ma­jor was scathing about those ag­i­tat­ing for a change in Tory lead­er­ship be­hind the scenes. Writ­ing in the Daily Mail, he said: “The coun­try has had enough of the self-ab­sorbed and, frankly, dis­loyal be­hav­iour we have wit­nessed over re­cent weeks. It is time for the in­di­vid­u­als con­cerned – both in par­lia­ment and in gov­ern­ment – to fo­cus their minds in­stead on the needs of the Bri­tish peo­ple, rather than on their own per­sonal am­bi­tion.”

Main im­age: Peter Byrne/PA

Mishaps … Theresa May’s con­fer­ence speech was spoilt by a prankster, a cough and fall­ing back­drop let­ters

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