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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Theresa May facing mutiny ahead of Conservative party conference

UK newspapers dominated by reports of British prime minister's high-profile colleagues publicly trading blows.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May listens to a speaker at the Conservative party conference, in Manchester, Britain October 1, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May listens to a speaker at the Conservative party conference, in Manchester, Britain October 1, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

London // It was British prime minister Theresa May’s 61st birthday on Sunday, but that was probably the only thing she had to celebrate as her party’s annual conference began amid a mood of mutiny.

As Conservative party delegates arrived in Manchester on Saturday, the front pages were dominated by reports of two of her high-profile colleagues publicly trading blows, and the Sunday papers brought no respite.

The Sunday Times reported that the Queen had felt “misled” by Mrs May during the period after the June 8 election which saw the Conservatives scrabble around to pull together a coalition in the House of Commons.

In a serialisation of a book by its political editor, the newspaper revealed the prime minister had been a “woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown” and had wept before she went to Buckingham Palace to speak to the Queen.

The same paper also reported that Boris Johnson, the pro-Brexit foreign secretary who has been “on manoeuvres” in the last two weeks as he allegedly plots to replace Mrs May, had said he believes she will be gone within the year.

Meanwhile The Observer claimed another cabinet minister, Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, who believes Britain should remain part of the European Union, had refused to endorse the prime minister staying in place until the next election.

Asked whether he thought Mrs May should stay on until the next poll, which is expected in 2022, Mr Javid paused before ending the interview. “I think we’re out of time,” he said.

Just the sort of climate then to be interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Marr in the traditional pre-conference interview that all political leaders submit to, and which is always a bruising experience.

Mr Marr gave the birthday girl no quarter, mercilessly pulling apart her claims that the cabinet and party was united behind her, saying that she had arrived in Manchester with “diminished authority” and her “cabinet [is] fighting like rats in a sack”.

After asking if the cabinet was “a nest of singing birds”, a claim Mr Johnson had made, Mr Marr instead suggested it was actually a nest with “at least one enormous cuckoo and several vultures sitting in it”.

He also challenged Mrs May over the foreign secretary’s recent activities, demanding to know if Mr Johnson was “unsackable”, a question that remained unanswered.

An unnamed minister told The Sunday Times that if Mrs May does not sack her increasingly independent senior colleague then she would have to go instead.

The former Tory party chairman Grant Shapps also broke cover and told Sky News that Mrs May should not lead the party into the next election, saying “it’s not conceivable that she can be the person taking us into the next election, and the best thing she can do right now is focus on Brexit and taking us out of Europe and then go.”

Another party grandee, Michael Heseltine, who was a cabinet minister in the 1980s and 1990s and served as deputy PM, said he did not think “there is any prospect” of Mrs May leading the party in 2022.

There were some loyalists who continued to back the prime minister, with her deputy Damien Green telling BBC radio that Mrs May “has a big agenda that she wants to get through. Clearly the election didn’t go well, but we now have four and a half years ahead of us in which we can not only get the Brexit deal that’s best for the country but also implement that domestic agenda.”

Mr Green also attacked the foreign secretary’s interventions on Brexit, saying “the government’s policy was agreed by the whole cabinet and was shown in [Mrs May’s] Florence speech. We know that Boris likes giving interviews and writing articles, but the government’s policy is absolutely clear.”

Meanwhile, attempts to bring the focus of the conference back to policy offerings went largely ignored. Government measures to freeze the amount of money that students would have to pay for university tuition, and a plan to boost the housing market with an injection of £10 billion (Dh49.22bn) in subsidised mortgages were lost in the static created by chatter about the leadership.

The conference is taking place against a backdrop of heightened security, as thousands of protesters gathered in the city, a stronghold of the opposition Labour party, at a pair of events organised by anti-brexit campaigners and left-wing activists.

Police had already warned delegates not to wear their accreditation for the event around the city. The last time the Conservatives held their conference in Manchester, party members were spat at and abused.