Fire Boris Johnson to Show Strength, U.K. Tories Urge May

  • Senior Tories urge PM to shake up team to show she’s in charge
  • Sterling weakens as May’s future as premier in doubt

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is being urged to shake up her Cabinet and fire Boris Johnson to show she’s in charge, according to people familiar with the situation, as Tories demand an end to the government infighting that threatens to bring chaos to Brexit.

Senior officials in May’s Conservative party, speaking on condition of anonymity, say she should act now to assert her authority in the face of plots from former Cabinet colleagues and rebellious behavior by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. The foreign office and May’s office declined to comment.

Boris Johnson

Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

Johnson has angered colleagues by forging his own path on Brexit in the run up to what proved a disastrous party conference for the prime minister, according to three senior Tories. On Friday, Johnson sent supportive messages to a private WhatsApp group of Tory members of Parliament urging them to support the premier, two of them said.

May faced calls to quit following a chaotic speech at the conference that she almost failed to finish due to a coughing fit. Grant Shapps, a former Conservative party chairman, announced on Friday he was orchestrating a campaign to persuade her to step down -- to which May responded by saying she’s providing the “calm leadership” the country needs.

Read more: With May’s Leadership in Doubt, Four Scenarios for Brexit

Despite his public declarations of support since May’s mishap, Johnson has been blamed by colleagues for undermining her leadership -- and he was publicly criticized for rocking the boat at the Tories’ annual gathering. Lawmakers on Friday called on Tories to unite behind the premier or watch as Labour’s socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn reaps the benefit.

Disunity, Agitating

“All this disunity and people agitating against the prime minister, all it does is mean that Jeremy Corbyn is getting closer to Number 10,” Conservative lawmaker Robert Halfon said in an interview with Channel 4 News on Friday.

The party’s leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, said those pushing May to resign should “put up or shut up,” according to the BBC. The party needs to “get its house in order” and let May “get back to governing,” Davidson said, according to the BBC.

Removing May now would throw Brexit negotiations into disarray. It would take as long as three months for the Tories to pick a new leader, and there are just 18 months to go until Britain tumbles out of the bloc. May made some concessions to Europe in a speech in Florence last month, which injected new momentum into long-stalled talks. Negotiations resume on Monday in Brussels.

Concerned May’s government will collapse before Brexit is complete, European Union negotiators have held more frequent back-room talks with the U.K.’s opposition Labour party, The Telegraph reported, citing people it didn’t identify. Corbyn and shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer have met with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, and first vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, the paper said. They want assurances Labour will honor deals made with the Conservatives, the Telegraph said.

The pound fell after Shapps’s announcement, as the prospect of months of political uncertainty unnerved investors, and pared losses after May’s comments.

Conservatives remain anxious after she led them in a failed election campaign earlier this year. Many believe she will have to quit before the next election, due in 2022, but worry that a leadership contest now will provoke an earlier vote that could result in a Corbyn victory.

Read more: With Tories Calling For May to Go, Who Could Succeed Her?

“Look I’ve had a cold all this week,” May said in comments broadcast on Sky News. “Next week I’m going to be updating MPs on my Florence speech, which has given real momentum to the Brexit talks and I will also be introducing a draft bill to cap energy prices which will stop ordinary working families from being ripped off.”

Shapps said he had a list of about 30 lawmakers who want a new leader of the party and prime minister. That’s fewer than the 48 needed to trigger a leadership battle, so if May is determined to stay then she can.

“We think the prime minister should stand aside now voluntarily so there can be a leadership election as soon as possible,” he told Bloomberg in a phone interview. “It is clear that we need to have a reboot and that means it is time to move on.”

Save May

A concerted operation was on display on Friday to keep May in place. Home Secretary Amber Rudd, often touted as a possible successor, wrote an article for the Telegraph newspaper saying: “she should stay.” Environment Secretary Michael Gove toured television studios with the same message. Charles Walker, deputy chairman of 1922 committee of rank and file Tory lawmakers, said the rebels wouldn’t prevail.

“No. 10 must be delighted to learn that it’s Grant Shapps leading this alleged coup: Grant has many talents, but what he doesn’t have is a following in the party,” he told the BBC. It’s a “coalition of the disappointed," he said.

Still, Cabinet support doesn’t necessarily protect her from further plotting.

“Theresa May isn’t quite out of the woods yet,” Matthew Goodwin, Professor of Politics at the University of Kent, said by phone. “There are multiple factors at work. The Brexiteers wanting to ensure Brexit is delivered, Conservative MPs wanting to ensure that their careers continue and that they don’t lose their seats, and leadership rivals who are maneuvering in different ways to replace May.”

— With assistance by Alastair Marsh

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