A devastating election and a high-profile speech strewn with mishaps have ignited a leadership crisis for British Prime Minister Theresa May at a critical time as Brexit negotiators push for a deal in Brussels.
A plot by a group of Conservative MPs to oust May was exposed on Friday, reviving memories of the backstabbing that led to Margaret Thatcher’s ouster in 1990.
Many colleagues publicly condemned the attempt and backed their leader, but the Sunday Times reported that at least three cabinet ministers had discussed the need to replace her this week.
Parliament returns on Monday and May is expected to announce a number of policy initiatives in a bid to reassert her authority, while there are also rumours of a cabinet reshuffle.
But she will also need some progress in the deadlocked Brexit negotiations which resume on Monday.
The prime minister has struggled since June when her gamble in calling an election to cement her power backfired spectacularly and she lost her parliamentary majority.
For many Conservatives, it is now a question of when, not if, she steps down ahead of the next election in 2022 — and the date most often mentioned is 2019, when Britain is expected to leave the European Union.
“Getting rid of her is like going to the dentist,” a government minister was quoted by The Sun as saying.
“You keep putting it off because it’s going to be painful but you know you have to do it eventually.”
There have been reports of bitter divisions for weeks and speculation has swirled over whether Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson might mount a leadership bid after his contrary interventions in the Brexit debate.
Johnson pledged his loyalty to the prime minister this weekend, but his erratic behaviour has drawn widespread criticism and accusations of betrayal.
Other potential successors include Home Secretary Amber Rudd, while Brexit Secretary David Davis and First Secretary of State Damian Green are seen as possible place-holders until after Brexit.
Newspaper reports on Sunday suggested that May is considering a reshuffle of her cabinet in which she would promote a younger generation of MPs.
“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,” she told the Sunday Times.
The paper said Johnson could be demoted in the reshuffle, which it said was planned for after the European summit on October 19 and 20.
Britain had hoped EU leaders would use that meeting to agree to the next stage of talks on future Britain-EU trade ties, but this seems unlikely.
EU officials say Britain has so far not made sufficient progress on preliminary negotiations centring on the divorce bill, despite May’s push for a breakthrough with her Florence speech last month.
‘This cannot go on’
Thwarted in Brussels, May had hoped to revive her fortunes at last week’s party conference.
But her keynote speech was disrupted by a serial prankster who handed her an end of employment form, and she then suffered a series of coughing fits that made her combative message barely audible.
The sense of chaos only heightened when letters from the slogan “Building a Country that Works for Everyone” started falling off the board behind her.
“The sense that this cannot go on may now overwhelm her,” wrote Times columnist Philip Collins, one of a growing number of commentators saying that the leadership crisis has finally come to a head.
Pro-Brexit MPs do not want another leadership election to slow down the process, and there are fears the lack of party unity could hand power to opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
But Iain Begg, a politics professor at the London School of Economics, said the current climate had “an echo” of the 1990 demise of Thatcher at the hands of Conservative plotters.
That ouster was in turn followed by recriminations over Europe in the 1990s under John Major that eventually led to Labour’s Tony Blair taking office in 1997.
“If the wind goes against Theresa May she could be finished by as early as next week. But if the cabinet is behind her, she will survive,” he said.