LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May signalled in an interview that she might demote Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a Sunday newspaper said, after she faced an open rebellion from within her party this week.
The Sunday Times said it asked May about her plans for Johnson, who has professed loyalty but is accused by some of the prime minister’s allies of undermining her by putting forward his own vision for Britain’s exit from the European Union.
“It has never been my style to hide from a challenge and I‘m not going to start now,” it quoted May as replying, in what it called a signal that she was prepared to bring in new ministers to her cabinet and axe those who had caused her problems.
“I‘m the PM, and part of my job is to make sure I always have the best people in my cabinet, to make the most of the wealth of talent available to me in the party.”
May’s Downing Street office declined to comment on the Sunday Times story late on Saturday, saying it had not yet seen the interview.
May has seen her authority over her Conservative Party erode since she called a snap election in June in which she lost her majority in parliament.
Johnson, widely seen as a potential candidate for the Conservative leadership, wrote a newspaper article last month outlining his vision of Britain’s exit from the EU just days before May was to give a major speech on the subject.
While professing loyalty, his interventions were seen as undercutting May and causing unnecessary unrest ahead of the party’s conference last week that culminated in a disastrous speech by May, marred by a coughing fit and letters falling off the slogan on the set behind her.
Speaking about her conference speech difficulties, May told the Sunday Times: “I am a very determined person. I am not someone who gives up.”
On Friday, former Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps said he had garnered the support of 30 lawmakers who wanted to remove May from the party leadership, short of the number needed to launch a formal challenge. [L8N1MI06W]
The news led senior figures, including Johnson, to rally around May and call for unity. “We have just had an election and people are fed up with this malarkey,” newspapers quoted Johnson as saying in a message to Conservative lawmakers.
The speculation about May’s position comes ahead of crucial Brexit talks between Britain and the EU, and the political uncertainty has led to growing concern that no deal would be agreed by March 2019 when Britain leaves the bloc. [L8N1MI06W]
Britain’s Sunday newspapers were brimming with briefings from unnamed Conservative figures suggesting May’s days in Downing Street were numbered.
The Sunday Times said three cabinet ministers had discussed the need to replace May. “It’s a ‘when’ question now,” one of the unnamed ministers told the paper. “It feels to me that this is over before Christmas.”
A fourth minister was quoted as saying there needed to be an orderly transition to a new leader and there was no prospect of May being in charge for the next election due in 2022.
The Observer newspaper said unnamed senior Conservative figures said while May had no long-term future they were pressing her to shake up her team of ministers, hoping new blood would re-energise the party as well as frustrate Johnson’s ambitions.
Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Peter Graff and Paul Simao