The Scottish Mail on Sunday
BORIS SET TO LAUNCH BID TO BE PM AS MAY CLINGS ON
Johnson team circles wounded Tory leader as she’s forced to sacrifice key aides to keep job
BORIS JOHNSON is preparing a new bid to become Prime Minister as Theresa May’s grip on No 10 becomes increasingly fragile.
A close ally of the Foreign Secretary said last night it was ‘go-go-go’ for Mr Johnson’s leadership push, adding: ‘We need Bojo. We need a
Brexiteer. We need somebody who can talk and connect with people like Jeremy Corbyn does. We need someone who can make Britain believe in itself again.’
Mr Johnson’s supporters are being careful to say that he will not take any action while Mrs May remains in No10 – but the fact that his allies are actively briefing about his virtues will be seen in Downing Street as destabilising.
Talk of his leadership bid came as Mrs May was rocked by the resignations of the two Downing Street advisers who have been blamed for the Election disaster – and a Mail on Sunday poll which found that half of voters want her to quit.
Such is the febrile atmosphere that The Mail on Sunday was even told that allies of Mr Johnson believe he has secured the support of Michael Gove. But friends of Mr Gove – who was Mr Johnson’s rival for the leadership in last year’s contest – dispute this.
Mrs May last night won the backing of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist MPs in order to shore up her precarious position, in a deal that would offer her the prospect of a working majority in the Commons.
The MoS Survation poll found that 49 per cent of all voters want Mrs May to resign, with only 38 per cent wanting her to stay put. And out of the contenders to replace her, Mr Johnson outscores his nearest rival, Chancellor Philip Hammond, by a margin of more than two to one.
A separate survey of Tory supporters by the Conservative Home website found that two-thirds wanted Mrs May to announce her resignation immediately.
Few Tory MPs believe that Mrs May will still be in No10 by the end of the summer after losing 13 Tory seats – squandering the party’s previous working majority of 12.
Mrs May’s joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, stepped down yesterday amid growing criticism of the power which they wielded in Downing Street. MPs had pointed the finger at Mr Timothy for including the so-called ‘dementia tax’ in the Tory manifesto, which was linked to a dramatic drop in the party’s support.
The aides have also been blamed by MPs and aides for creating a ‘toxic’ Downing Street in which officials and Ministers are subject to bullying. It is understood that senior party figures had warned Mrs May that she could face an immediate leadership challenge if her aides stayed in their jobs. Yesterday, Mr Timothy said he took responsibility for the failure of the campaign, but denied that the ‘dementia tax’ had been his ‘personal pet policy’. In a long parting statement he said: ‘The simple truth is that Britain is a divided country: many are tired of austerity, many remain frustrated or angry about Brexit, and many younger people feel they lack the opportunities enjoyed by their parents’ generation.’ The aides were replaced by a single chief of staff, former Housing Minister Gavin Barwell, who lost his Croydon Central seat in the General Election. Mrs May is expected to face a grilling by the party’s powerful 1922 Committee of backbenchers this week, where she is likely to face hard questions about the Election result. Sources said there would have been a ‘bloodbath’ if Mr Timothy and Ms Hill were still in their jobs when the meeting started. The devastated Prime Minister cobbled together an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party last night after sending her Chief Whip Gavin Williamson to Belfast.
But Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson – whose success north of the border was crucial in preventing Labour from forming a Government – expressed public disquiet about the alliance with the anti-gay rights, anti-abortion party.
She said she had sought ‘clear assurances’ from Mrs May that any deal would not set back equality.
In Scotland, Miss Davidson also unveiled her newly-strengthened team of 13 MPs and declared they would be ‘Scotland’s champions’ while Nicola Sturgeon came under fire from senior figures within her own party for being ‘out of touch’ with voters over demands for another independence referendum. Meanwhile south of the Border there were public protests against the Tory deal with the DUP, which would be the only way Mrs May could ensure her legislation got through the Commons. More than 500,000 people signed a petition against the Tories doing a deal.
The turmoil forced Mrs May to delay a planned reshuffle of her middle-ranking Ministers until today. She is being urged to appoint a formal Deputy Prime Minister to shore up her position, with Brexit Secretary David Davis the favourite for the job.
It would put Mr Davis in a difficult position, as he is widely believed to be considering a run at the leadership if there is a contest. Other possible candidates include Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd.
The Mail on Sunday poll by Survation – the only company to accurately predict the result of the General Election – makes grim reading for Mrs May. Of the 49 per cent of voters who think she should resign, a total of 41 per cent think she should do so immediately.
If she does quit, Mr Johnson is the clear favourite to succeed her. He
Out – the aides who made No 10 ‘toxic’ May ‘needs Deputy PM to shore up her position’
is backed by 26 per cent of voters, with Mr Hammond the next favourite with 10 per cent. Mr Davis is on nine per cent, Ms Rudd eight per cent and Mr Gove four per cent.
A spokesman for Mr Johnson last night insisted he was fully behind Mrs May, saying: ‘He is completely supporting the PM and working closely with her to get the best deal in our Brexit negotiations.’
Respondents in our poll were scathing about Mrs May’s performance in the campaign, with only 16 per cent thinking she had put in the best performance, compared to 67 per cent arguing for Mr Corbyn. When asked why Mrs May failed, the most common answer, 27 per cent, was the dementia tax.
The political paralysis caused by the Election is widely believed to have strengthened the hand of proEU MPs who support a ‘soft’ Brexit, in which the UK retains access to the tariff-free single market and customs union. This approach is backed by 47 per cent of voters, compared with 36 per cent who want a ‘hard’ Brexit.
The resignations of her closest aides leaves Mrs May an even more isolated figure. The ‘cabal’ which took most decisions consisted of her, her husband Philip, Mr Timothy and Ms Hill – with her Cabinet left out in the cold.
Craig Oliver, who was David Cameron’s director of communications, welcomed the departure of the aides. In an article for today’s Mail on Sunday, he demands to know how ‘the Conservative party allowed these two people with such questionable judgment to influence so much and get it so wrong?’
And Katie Perrior, who worked with Mr Timothy and Ms Hill as Theresa May’s director of communications until the Election, said the two aides were the reason that No 10 ‘bloody well stank’ of ‘arrogance’.
Tory peer Lord Heseltine added to the chorus of criticism, using an article in The Mail on Sunday to describe the Election as ‘an unusually poor campaign, crippled by the reverse over what has been branded the “dementia tax” and some unwise sloganeering.’
Tory MP Nigel Evans was even more scathing, describing the Conservative manifesto as having been ‘full of poison from beginning to end’.
He said: ‘It was mean-spirited in trying to take school lunches off youngsters, it was irrelevant in trying to bring back fox-hunting and it was a full-frontal assault on our core support which was the elderly. The only thing that was missing from the manifesto was compulsory euthanasia for the over-70s.’
Tory grandee Lord Tebbit added: ‘The idea of this Election had been conceived by Mr and Mrs May and two or three close advisers who know very little. They then elected to have a campaign of well over seven weeks. Madness. If you are ahead at the beginning, as all the polls indicated, the only thing that can happen during those seven weeks is that things get worse.’
Lord Mandelson also enters the debate today by calling for MPs who backed staying in the EU to use Mrs May’s political weakness as an opportunity to put pressure on her to keep the UK in the single market and customs union.
The former Labour Minister uses an article in this newspaper to hint at an alliance between moderates, saying that ‘new parliamentary arithmetic’ should be used to outmanoeuvre the ‘headbangers’ who want to cut most ties with Brussels.
He says: ‘I believe if [Mrs May] shows flexibility, most of the country will back her. It would be churlish for people like me and other Remainers not to give her political backing.’