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