May Loyalists Urge Her to Fire Plotters

  • Loyalists urging prime minister to put end to the backstabbing
  • May says some cabinet ministers not taking roles ‘seriously’

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is being encouraged to fire disloyal ministers who risk tearing the government apart and handing power to Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.

Several of her Conservative Party’s top officials are privately urging May to take a hard line with the plotters and get rid of those ministers responsible for anonymous briefings over the weekend against Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, according to one senior Tory lawmaker familiar with the matter and speaking on condition of anonymity.

May used a meeting of the cabinet on Tuesday to order her most senior colleagues to stop feuding with each other, after weekend press reports laid bare the various factions at war. While the prime minister is battling a handful of conspirators operating behind the scenes, she can still count on important allies who are backing her publicly.

“The prime minister said that the briefings and counter-briefings over the weekend had been a case of colleagues not taking their responsibilities seriously,” May’s spokesman, James Slack, told reporters in London after the cabinet meeting. “She added that there is a need to show strength and unity as a country and that starts around the cabinet table.”

The 1922 committee that represents rank-and-file Tory lawmakers made it clear to May at a meeting last week that “if she had to remove secretaries of state she would have our support,” its vice chairman, Charles Walker, told BBC Radio. “The party is united behind the prime minister and people who have leadership ambitions should remember that.”

The political upheaval caused the pound to drop on Monday and made for an uncomfortable backdrop for the Brexit negotiations underway in Brussels. May’s difficulties have been stacking up since June’s general election stripped the Conservative Party of its parliamentary majority, forcing it into an uneasy alliance to cling on to power.

Brexit Talks

The chaos May faces at home complicates multifaceted divorce talks with 27 nations acting in unison. Time is on the side of the EU, because if by March 29, 2019, there is no deal, the U.K. will be ejected from the EU and trade will be subject to tariffs.

Talks resumed Tuesday in Brussels, without Brexit Secretary David Davis. Officials focused on the exit bill, citizens’ rights and issues including nuclear-energy collaboration. Still, the talks were overshadowed by political infighting at home.

May survived as Tory leader after apologizing to her party and promising lawmakers in a private meeting she’d be more consensual in her governing style and only stay on as long as they want her. Her humility pitch dissipated the immediate anger at the election result and seemed to buy her time.

But in recent days a number of senior Tory ministers and their supporters have been positioning themselves for potential leadership bids, two senior officials said. One senior member of Parliament said May had lost all her authority as party leader and prime minister.

Plotters

The factions said to be involved include allies of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and backers of Davis as well as campaigners promoting Communities Secretary Sajid Javid and International Development Secretary Priti Patel.

Hammond has become a particular target because he has been advocating a vision of Brexit that will minimize disruption for businesses, in part through a transitional period lasting several years.

“I don’t feel particularly enfeebled,” Hammond told the House of Commons on Tuesday after he was taunted over the briefings by Labour opponents.

Trade Secretary and Brexit campaigner Liam Fox was among the senior figures to condemn the infighting and private briefings over the weekend, suggesting that the feud would damage Britain in Brexit negotiations. “Our backbenchers are furious and the only people smiling at this will be in Berlin and Paris,” Fox said Sunday on the BBC.

Labour Threat

Allowing the division and infighting to continue risks fatally damaging the Conservatives in the eyes of voters -- and could lead to a fresh surge in support for Corbyn’s Labour Party, one official said.

A government minister said the individuals responsible for the briefings did not represent the majority of the party and should stay quiet because they are damaging the party’s image. There are also senior Tories that are still rallying behind May.

“If you are a Conservative right now, you should be getting on with the business of running your department and governing in the national interest,” said Walker, who described himself as “very angry” about the dissent. “There’s no hope for these people,” he said. “They will not get the support from rank-and-file members of Parliament or middle-ranking ministers.”

— With assistance by Thomas Penny

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