Theresa May has insisted the cabinet is united and she will be leader “for the long term” despite fresh moves by Boris Johnson to undermine her authority, setting the stage for a fractious Conservative party conference.
The prime minister claimed on Sunday that Johnson was fully behind her plan for Brexit, but she is under growing pressure to sack the foreign secretary for posing a challenge to her leadership.
In an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, May was asked whether Johnson had become “unsackable” but she refused to answer, suggesting that she does not feel confident enough to get rid of him without provoking an outright leadership challenge.
Johnson first undermined May by publishing his personal blueprint for Brexit two weeks ago, before deciding to back her flagship speech in Florence. However, the foreign secretary renewed his insubordination before the annual conference by setting out his own four “red lines” for the EU negotiations, while his allies briefed that he is planning one last tilt at the leadership within the next year.
The Sunday Times reported that Johnson may be trying to get May to sack him partly because he is struggling to fund all his personal obligations on a cabinet minister’s salary of more than £140,000 a year.
May insisted she was in control of her cabinet in the Marr interview.
“What I have is a cabinet united in the mission of this government and that is what you will see this week and agreed on the approach we take in Florence,” she said. “Boris is absolutely behind the Florence speech. You’ve seen what he is saying.”
May added that people were more interested in their own jobs than the future of her job as prime minister or Johnson’s cabinet position.
She dodged a question on whether she would resign if she did not manage to get a Brexit deal and earlier told the Sunday Telegraph that she wanted to lead the party into the next election.
“I will fight the next election,” she told the newspaper. “I’m not a quitter. I’m in it for the long-term and I believe there is a long-term job to do.”
May also declined to apologise for the result of the general election, in which she lost the party’s overall majority won by David Cameron in 2015.
Her remarks are likely to alarm some Conservative MPs after she promised them after the election that her future would be in their hands and she would serve only as long as they wanted her to be leader.
Senior Conservatives are divided on whether May should have another chance at fighting an election. Damian Green, the first secretary of state, said he “absolutely” thought May should be leader for another election, and implicitly rebuked Johnson for going off message.
He told the BBC’s Pienaar’s Politics: “I am happy to make a general point that it is understandable that any group of politicians faced with a big issue will have a range of views. It is extremely sensible when you are in government to express those views in private rather than public.
“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.
But he also said that Johnson had “huge strengths” and was an asset to the government as well as the party.
“We know that Boris likes giving interviews and writing articles, but the government’s policy is absolutely clear, it’s what was in the Florence speech,” he said.
David Mundell, the Scottish secretary, was even less diplomatic about the foreign secretary. Asked at a conference fringe event how he thought Johnson would go down with young Scottish people if he became leader, Mundell said: “I do recall that Boris Johnson once stood as rector of Edinburgh university. You can look at the results of that.”
Johnson, then the shadow higher education secretary, was showered with beer and greeted with chants of “Bog off Boris, you top-up Tory” when he visited the university in 2006. He eventually finished a fairly distant third in the race behind Green MSP Mark Ballard and journalist Magnus Linklater, beating only the radical filmmaker John Pilger.
At the same event, the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, urged an end to “the Tory psychodrama.”
On Pienaar’s Politics, Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, backtracked on an earlier refusal in the Observer to support the prime minister staying for another election.
“That’s what I desire, and that’s what I expect. She has the backing of her the cabinet her ministers, the party, we are all united,” he said.
Javid also dismissed the idea that Johnson was seeking to undermine May. “We all know Boris, he can get a bit excited now and again. But the fundamental point is, he’s someone just like me and everyone else in the cabinet that is backing the PM in this agenda that we’ve got.”
However, other Conservatives dismissed outright the idea that May will still be leader for the next election. Michael Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister, said he did not think there was “any prospect of that”, and Grant Shapps, the former party co-chairman, even more categorically rejected the idea.
“If you run any organisation … and something goes monumentally wrong, as it did at the election … the buck does have to stop with that individual,” he said. “The reality is that every serious person, every serious MP, every commentator knows she can’t lead us into the next election. Of course she can’t.”
At the conference in Manchester, the prime minister is trying to shore up her position by announcing a raft of policies designed to appeal to younger voters on student fees and housing. On the first day of the event, she revealed:
• A freeze of the cap on student fees at £9,250 a year, a higher earnings repayment threshold and a review of the student finance system
• A £10bn extension of the help to buy scheme to help first-time buyers get on the housing ladder
• Incentives for landlords to offer longer term tenancies.
May said the party was unveiling the policies because voters felt society was not working for them “even more keenly than perhaps we’d realised”.
“Yes we’ve got to look at what happened, listen to the election and listen to voters,” she said.
However, she signalled that the government will press ahead with the rollout of universal credit – the new welfare system that combines six benefits in a single monthly payment – despite a backbench Tory rebellion over the hardship it is causing some of their constituents.
The new Tory pledges do not match the ambition of Labour’s manifesto, which said it would scrap student fees altogether and embark on a plan of mass housebuilding.
The prime minister insisted Jeremy Corbyn’s plans were not credible and would “wreck the economy”, but Labour dismissed May’s ideas as ineffective.
Angela Rayner, shadow education secretary, said: “The fact Theresa May thinks she can win over young people by pledging to freeze tuition fees only weeks after increasing them to £9,250 shows just how out of touch she is.”
John Healey, the shadow housing minister, said more help to buy was “yet another policy from the Tories that will only help the few, not the many”.