Boris Johnson is facing a backlash among fellow Cabinet ministers and MPs amid claims that he tried to destabilise Theresa May at the start of the Tory party conference.
As business warned the country was being harmed by Government division, a string of ministers accused Johnson of misreading the mood of backbench MPs who want nothing to derail the Government or the Brexit process.
Irritation surfaced after the Foreign Secretary set out fresh ‘red lines’ over Brexit and fresh reports emerged that he believed the Prime Minister would be gone from office within a year.
One senior Cabinet minister told HuffPost UK that Johnson was ruining his own leadership ambitions, just a little over a year after he failed to gather enough supporters to win the Tory crown himself in 2016.
The minister said fellow MPs were the vital factor in any future Tory leadership contest, and most were “horrified” at the prospect of changing leader so soon after the election.
“People who aspire to lead the Conservatives always forget who the audience is. It’s not the membership, it’s their colleagues in Parliament,” the minister said.
“There is absolutely no appetite for a leadership election now. If you said to backbenchers let’s have a leadership election in the Autumn, they would be horrified.”
Chambers of Commerce Director General Adam Marshall said: “Businesspeople across Britain are growing impatient with division and disorganisation at the heart of the party of government, and have made it very clear that they expect competence and coherence from ministers as we move into a critical period for the economy.”
Under Tory party rules, leadership candidates have to get enough backing from MPs before they can go onto a ballot of party members.
Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, told Radio 4′s Westminster Hour that the Tories had to show at the conference that they were “a grown up party which cares more about the future of our country than about the particular career prospects of any individual”.
May laughed uncomfortably when asked on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday if her weakened authority meant that Johnson was “unsackable”.
One senior Brexiteer minister said that Johnson’s decision to continue to set out his stall on the issue was not wise. “It’s not the strategy I would adopt.” They added: “Nobody is unsackable.”
Other senior Tories said that the feedback from Tory backbenches was clear and none wanted any attempt to destabilise the PM on the eve of the annual conference.
Just a week after May had tried to unite her Cabinet with a plan for a two-year transition period for Brexit, Johnson had used an interview with the Sun newspaper on Saturday to set out his own tougher stance.
He said the transition should be “not a second more” than two years and the UK must refuse any new EU court rulings once it had quit in 2019.
First Secretary of State Damian Green, May’s de facto deputy, signalled on Sunday that Johnson should keep his private views to himself.
At a HuffPost UK fringe event at the party conference in Manchester, Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke reminded Johnson that all Cabinet ministers were only in post because of the PM.
Johnson was “a big figure” in the Cabinet, Gauke said. But he added: “We all serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister.”
And at another fringe meeting, Scottish Secretary David Mundell refused to answer “hypothetical questions” about his colleague’s appeal to young voters.
“I do recall that Boris Johnson once stood as rector of Edinburgh university. You can look at the results of that.”
The 2006 contest saw the then-higher education secretary come a distant third behind Green MSP Mark Ballard and a journalist. On a visit to the university Johnson was sprayed with beer and faced chants of “Bog off Boris, you top-up Tory”.
When asked about Johnson, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said she did not want to discuss “Tory psychodrama”.
She had said on Saturday that Johnson’s infamous Vote Leave bus claim, that Brexit would release £350m per week for the NHS, “wasn’t a figure I recognised”.
Green, seen as the PM’s ‘enforcer’ of Cabinet discipline, also told BBC Radio 5 Live that colleagues should stick to the agreed position on Brexit.
“It’s advice for everyone. It’s advice for all my colleagues at all times. That if you feel strongly about something then make your pitch in private.
“And then, when the Government has come to a collective decision, stick to it.”
“On Brexit, the government’s policy was agreed by the whole Cabinet and was shown in the Florence speech ..and that’s our policy, and that’s what remains our policy. We know that Boris likes giving interviews and writing articles, but the government’s policy is absolutely clear.”
Earlier, former Cabinet minister Lord Heseltine said Johnson should be fired.
“Boris is using his position within the Cabinet in order to cause the difficulties that he is….in any normal situation he would be sacked. Probably that’s the right thing to do now,” he told BBC Daily Politics.
“But as your commentary has consistently revealed, the Prime Minister’s weakness is such that she is between the devil and the deep blue sea. If she keeps him inside, he will continue to disrupt, if she puts him outside he will disrupt.”
The Sunday Times revealed that allies of the Foreign Secretary have warned a coup against May could “take off fast” and that party donors are withholding money because she is “running the party into the ground”.
It also emerged Johnson privately mocked the PM, joking that former aides Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy held her in a state of “modern slavery”, a reference to May’s long campaign against people traffickers.
At another fringe meeting on Sunday evening, Johnson was forced to say that May had a great future.