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Senior Tories today crushed Theresa May’s claim that she will lead them into the next election.
MPs and grandees shot down her surprise assertion that she is “here for the long term” and will remain Prime Minister into the next parliament.
Even loyal supporters, who said Mrs May was right to assert her authority as premier, admitted there could be no second chance for her to run a general election campaign after throwing away David Cameron’s 2015 majority.
Former Cabinet minister Nicky Morgan said it would be “difficult” for Mrs May to stay on until 2022, when the next election is due.
Lord Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister, said Mrs May had no long-term future. Privately, two executive members of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers said “a better campaigner” would be required to fight the next election.
Former party chairman Grant Shapps said MPs would be “surprised” by Mrs May’s words and that she was sounding like Margaret Thatcher “talking about going on and on”.
“You can’t go pretending it wasn’t anything other than a disastrous result,” he told BBC Radio 4. “Of course it was. You can’t jump straight from that to ‘I’ll go on for ever.’”
He said voters still needed to hear Mrs May say sorry and that she was moving too quickly from the humble tone she adopted after the election on June 8.
Mr Shapps said: “I think colleagues may well be surprised by this interview last night and I think it is too early to be talking about going on and on, as Margaret Thatcher once said. Let’s get some progress for the British people first — I think that’s the priority.”
Recalling Mrs May telling MPs in June “I’ll serve for as long as you want me”, he said: “I think that’s absolutely the right tone. It’s the tone that she will, I hope, repeat at party conference. The wider membership needs to hear that and the country needs to hear that.”
Before her third general election victory in 1987, Mrs Thatcher was asked about a potential fourth term. She told the BBC: “I hope to go on and on.”
Katie Perrior, Mrs May’s former director of communications at No 10, said the Prime Minister had been right to challenge reports that she would retire in summer 2019, soon after Brexit.
Ms Perrior said: “It is the only thing she could say. I know when David Cameron announced that he was going to step down at a certain point, it was downhill from there. She knows in politics you never give your end date.”
However, when Ms Perrior was asked on Radio 4’s Today show whether Mrs May would actually lead the Tories into another election, she replied: “No.”
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was the only Cabinet minister to immediately back Mrs May. He said she was “ideally placed” to deliver Brexit and that he was “here to support her”.
Mrs May was strongly backed in public by pro-Brexit Conservative MPs — despite signs some Right-wingers are manoeuvring behind the scenes to succeed her as leader.
MP Peter Bone said she would be a “national hero” after Britain leaves the European Union in 2019. Ex-Cabinet minister John Redwood told Sky that if she “wishes to remain as leader that’s fine by me”.
Fellow Leave supporter Nigel Evans said her words would “shut some of the runners and riders up to concentrate on their jobs, which is what Theresa May is doing”. He added: “She said she would get us out of this mess and when she does I see her reputation greatly enhanced.”
Ex-minister Bob Neill, MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, said a “completely fresh approach” would be needed to win back support in places such as London where the Tories did badly under Mrs May.
“There is no appetite to change leader while we are dealing with Brexit,” he said. “Afterwards, then the Conservative Party’s task has got to be to make sure it goes into the election with a completely fresh approach, both to pull the country together after Brexit and to win back those young, well-educated, aspirant voters who we lost at the last election in London.”
In a series of prepared interviews during her trip to Japan, Mrs May set out her plan to carry on to the next election, saying: “I’m not a quitter.”
She said: “I’m in this for the long term. There’s a real job to be done in the United Kingdom. It’s about getting the Brexit deal right, it’s about building that deep and special partnership with the European Union, but it’s also about building global Britain, trading around the world.
“Yes, dealing with injustices that remain inside the United Kingdom, but also going out around the world ensuring that we can do those trade deals which bring prosperity to our economy and bring jobs to the United Kingdom.”
Her words were an attempt to quash recent reports that she will step down in 2019 and apparent manoeuvring by potential successors including the eurosceptic MP Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The party conference will be held in October. Ms Morgan said no leader wanted to set a retirement date as it was a sign of “your own political mortality”.
However, she added: “I think it’s going to be difficult for Theresa May to lead us into the next general election.”
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