Brexiteers call for May to go

Boris Johnson © Rex Features
Johnson: pledging allegiance, plotting a coup

Yet the rebels are unable to agree on a viable successor – or a credible Brexit plan. Emily Hohler reports.

Theresa May could face a leadership challenge within days after 50 Tory MPs met on Tuesday night to discuss getting rid of her, says The Daily Telegraph. The MPs who attended the meeting are members of the European Research Group (ERG) and are determined to “kill off” May’s Chequers plan. As one attendee put it, “If she won’t chuck Chequers then I’m afraid the party will chuck her.”

This is the “most explicit threat to the PM” so far, but it may be less serious than it sounds, says Daniel Capurro in the same paper. Only 48 MPs are needed to trigger a leadership challenge, but 158 votes are needed to “actually get rid of May”. The most telling detail to emerge from Tuesday night was that ERG members were reportedly openly discussing “how best to game the leadership election rules”.

Whipping up the mob

Boris Johnson, the favourite to take over from May, insists he still supports the prime minister despite his increasingly outspoken attacks. Hours before the ERG meeting he described the Chequers plan as “humiliating” and “substantially worse than the status quo”. Writing in The Mail on Sunday, he said, “We have wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution – and handed the detonator to Michel Barnier”. On Monday, he used his Daily Telegraph column to call for May to cut taxes for “striving” families post-Brexit.

All of this followed on from Friday’s news that he was getting divorced, and the leaking of a “dirty dossier” that Downing Street subsequently denied deploying as part of a campaign to wreck his leadership ambitions, says Macer Hall in the Daily Express. His “serial philandering” won’t affect his leadership chances as it is “already factored in to his reputation”, says Rachel Sylvester in The Times, but the “amorality of his politics will”.

As foreign secretary, Johnson had the chance to prove he had the ability to lead. “Instead, he combined incompetence with incoherence and insubordination.” The suicide-vest analogy was described by his former Foreign Office colleague Alan Duncan as “one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics”. Johnson knows “better than most the power of words to whip up the mob”, but ultimately he is a ruthlessly ambitious “fake”. He may be popular among Tory members, but even his allies “privately admit” he would “struggle to secure the backing of enough MPs in a leadership contest”.

Brexiteers on the back foot

Even if he managed to win such a contest, he would never be able to govern since 12 or more MPs would refuse to serve under him, effectively depriving the government of its majority, a senior Tory MP told the Express. British voters don’t seem that keen on him as prime minister either, says Chris Curtis in The Times. Although Theresa May’s “Brexit compromises” have lost her support, at present Johnson’s “net favourability rating is “only marginally ahead” at -22 versus -26.

Nor do Brexiteers appear to have a better plan. They are on the “back foot” after Jacob Rees-Mogg said they would no longer be publishing their full 140-page alternative blueprint for Brexit, says George Parker in the Financial Times. “The abortive exercise confirms the fissiparous nature of Tory eurosceptic MPs.” Quite, says Asa Bennett in The Daily Telegraph. In any case, May has “committed herself to Chequers” and there is very little Brexiteers can say to make her change tack. “What matters more is parliamentary arithmetic.” The “real Brexit battle will not be fought with competing plans, but Commons votes – and inevitably tight ones, too”.