British PM Theresa May says she has Cabinet support amid plot for her ouster

Remote video URL

LONDON (WASHINGTON POST) - Theresa May vowed to carry on as British prime minister, insisting she has the full support of her Cabinet despite a campaign to oust her that threatens Brexit talks.

May is facing calls to quit after a disastrous election campaign in June and a chaotic speech to her party's conference in Manchester on Wednesday (Oct 4), which was disrupted by a prankster, a prolonged coughing fit and a stage set that started to collapse behind her.

A group of Conservatives fear she will lose the next election, handing power to socialist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

"What the country needs is calm leadership and that's what I'm providing, with the full support of my Cabinet," May told reporters in her constituency of Maidenhead near London.

Her comments come after her former Cabinet colleague Grant Shapps announced he was orchestrating a campaign to persuade May to step aside so the Conservative party can choose a new leader, and prime minister.

Shapps said about 30 lawmakers had signed up to his move. That is fewer than the 48 needed to remove her against her will, so if May is determined to stay then she can.

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

She told a TV crew that she had been unwell but would press ahead with her workload.

"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."

Removing May now would also throw Brexit negotiations into chaos. 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.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond this week warned that the transitional arrangements May proposed in Florence will become less valuable to business if they are not agreed soon.

Shapps, who served as Conservative Party chairman, said he has a list of colleagues who want to choose a new leader of the party and prime minister, after May failed to win a majority in June's national election.

The list of about 30 rebels is "growing", and includes five former Cabinet ministers, as well as Tories from both sides of the Brexit debate, he said.

"We think the prime minister should stand aside now voluntarily so there can be a leadership election as soon as possible," Shapps 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."

Shapps is the most senior figure to call for May to quit after her disastrous speech on Wednesday to close out the Conservative Conference. He helped oversee the 2015 general election that handed David Cameron a majority.

Despite the anti-May campaign, it is still not clear if Shapps and others have enough support to force her out of office against her will.

A concerted operation was under way on Friday morning 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 would not 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.

Cabinet support doesn't necessarily protect May 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."

The crisis could hardly come at a worse time for Brexit. May had just won some goodwill from EU partners by offering concessions in a speech in Florence, giving some momentum to talks.

Discussions are due to resume in Brussels on Monday, and EU counterparts will be struggling to understand who is calling the shots in London.

"The UK negotiating team is sending the right signals to counterparts in Brussels, but the EU27 collectively are becoming more concerned," said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group.

"There is an emerging consensus that May is too weak and now damaged to shepherd through the Article 50 process."

The possibility that May's departure could usher in a Brexit hardliner is worrying to businesses and investors who want a longer, smoother transition than the one advocated by a popular anti-EU wing of the party.

Potential contenders like foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit secretary David Davis "are perceived as strongly associated with a hard Brexit", said Will Jennings, professor of politics at Southampton University.

"If one of them became leader and things get sticky with the negotiations, then the Tories become the party forever associated with a bad Brexit and that will increase the chances of punishment by voters."

Tories worry that ousting May could set in chain a series of events that leads to yet another general election, which would risk handing power to the socialist Labour leader Corbyn.

One senior lawmaker who believes May is deeply wounded said she would survive this crisis, but the next one would end her leadership.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.