Theresa May will leave Number 10 ... sooner rather than later

Theresa May delivers her keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference
PHOTO: Joe Giddens/PA

Theresa May delivers her keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference PHOTO: Joe Giddens/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Theresa May appears to have the backing of the majority of her MPs – but for how long?

Each of Norfolk's Tory MPs has given their vote of confidence to the embattled prime minister in the days since her uncomfortable speech to party conference.

The response has been loud and clear: 'Now is not the time.'

But something was lost amid the clamour surrounding yesterday's news that there was indeed a plot to topple Mrs May: It is not a new plot.

In fact former party chairman Grant Shapps was gathering names long before the car-crash conference speech left even the most loyal of Mrs May's supporters with their heads in their hands. This has been going on for some time.

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And it was not Mr Shapps that made his plans public but the party whips, obviously hoping to kill off any further dissent by outing the ring leader.

For now at least it appears to have worked. But in Mrs May the Tories have a leader with a question hanging over her head – and it is not 'if' but 'when?'

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Number 10 sources told this paper that the spirit inside the bruised camp remains strangely 'calm' but many are resigned to the fact that their boss is almost certainly doomed.

Mr Shapps is a divisive character in the party and even if he does have as many as 30 MPs backing his attempt to dislodge the PM it is some way from the 48 needed to spark a contest. On top of this many MPs are playing a waiting game – but they won't wait long.

Mrs May is beyond her final warning. That came and went when she failed to deliver a conference that rallied the troops instead ending up as a political farce. And when she claimed in the wake of Mr Shapps plot being revealed that she had the backing of her full cabinet she appeared weaker still. Can you name a strong leader who has been forced to convince people of their power? The vultures are circling above Downing Street.

The truth is that what MPs say in public and what they say in private to each other are very different things.

They have to consider what happens next. If Mrs May does go, do they really want to be seen as one of the people who got her ousted? Each MP needs to figure out whose side they are on now for any leadership contest that could follow.

And right now the Tories are so fractured and divided it is tough to know who to back, especially at this early stage. There are the Remainers, the Brexiteers, the remnants of the Cameron camp and those who have been loyal to Mrs May. Speak up too soon and chances of that longed-for promotion might suddenly disappear.

But in private and off the record some MPs are more candid about the future. One said: 'The problem is if it is not May then who will it be? We have 53-year-old Boris running around like a 14 year old and not a great deal else. That's the problem. But then MPs start to worry, quite rightly, about their majorities – especially as some are now significantly reduced. And they start to wonder what further damage would be done if we were to go into another election with Theresa.'

Another said: 'The conference was a disaster. Now is not the best time for a leadership contest but I think in the next few weeks more and more MPs are going to realise that the issue is not going away and we need to start again.

'I would be very surprised if she is still here at Christmas and I am starting to think it would be better if she wasn't. A fresh start is required.'

The truth is that Mrs May is too damaged. The slightest mishap will topple her. Many MPs – even those supportive of her in the past – across the whole country are just waiting for the moment.

When the moment does come though the scrap that follows could be messy. Many will be deeply hurt by the way Mrs May has been treated and others will be brutal in their attempts to bury any memory of her.

And the contenders will, this time, include Boris Johnson. And then the party could split again – for and against Mr Johnson.

There is not a wealth of candidates. The younger brood of talent – including Dominic Raab – would have preferred a few more years experience before any tilt at leadership.

It has been an extraordinarily turbulent time in British politics all set in train by the promise of a European Union referendum in the 2015 Tory election manifesto.

Mrs May will be just the latest victim of the Brexit fall-out – whether she goes tomorrow or hangs on for a few more years. But don't expect her to be the last.

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