Boris Johnson and a host of hardline Brexiteers will hold crunch talks with Theresa May today as Cabinet ministers orchestrate a coup to topple the beleaguered Prime Minister.
The former foreign secretary will join European Research Group chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg and ex-ministers Dominic Raab, David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith and Damian Green at her Buckinghamshire retreat this afternoon.
Sources said they were invited to meet with Theresa May, who is using the weekend to meet various groups with different views on Brexit, rather than demanding an audience.
All but Mr Green are bitter opponents of Theresa May’s handling of Brexit and are considered among the leading Brexiteer canidates to replace her if and when she steps down.
It is also Mr Johnson’s second meeting with Mrs May in three days, after he visited her in Downing Street on Friday afternoon.
The presence of senior ERG figures like Mrs Rees-Mogg and Mr Duncan Smith will give Mrs May a chance to talk them around over her Brexit deal.
The votes of its members will be key to any chance Mrs May has of getting it through Parliament next week – if it is brought to a vote at all.
Boris Johnson seen entering Downing Street on Friday, where he had a meeting with Theresa May. He has been a vociferous critic of her Brexit deal
ERG chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg is also among those believed to be attending Chequers this afternoon for a showdown with Theresa May
It came as Theresa May’s deputy David Lidington insisted today he does not want to replace her as Prime Minister as he found himself at the centre of a cabinet coup.
The Cabinet Office minister spoke out ahead of crunch talks between the PM and hardline Brexiteers including Boris Johnson at Chequers this afternoon, as ministers plotted to topple her.
As senior cabinet figures complained that the Prime Minister’s judgement had reportedly gone ‘haywire’ in recent weeks Mr Lidington, her de-facto deputy Prime Minister, was named as a possible caretaker if she is forced out.
But Brexiteers who could not stomach the little-known Remainer being in charge at a crucial time for Brexit are plotting to get 2016 Leave mastermind and Environment Secretary Michael Gove installed instead.
One Cabinet Minister branded the plot ‘a f****** coup.’
Mr Lidington told reporters in his Aylesbury constituency today: ‘I don’t think that I’ve any wish to take over from the PM (who) I think is doing a fantastic job.
‘I tell you this: one thing that working closely with the Prime Minister does is cure you completely of any lingering shred of ambition to want to do that task.
‘I have absolute admiration for the way she is going about it.’
David Lidington, the Cabinet Office Minister and Mrs May’s de-facto deputy, said today: ‘I don’t think that I’ve any wish to take over from the PM’
Alarmed Brexiteers are aligning behind Environment Secretary Michael Gove (pictured today), a former leadership candidate and mastermind of the Leave campaign in 2016, as a caretaker leader
Theresa May leaving church this morning. She is spending the weekend at Chequers planning her next move as her ministers also plot theirs – which includes replacing her
After a torturous 14 hours at the EU Council, the Prime Minister returned to the British residency in Brussels in the early hours of Friday morning and demanded a large whisky.
But back in Westminster, her closest Cabinet colleagues were preparing to hand Theresa May a revolver to go with it.
Senior Cabinet Ministers and allies are privately urging Mrs May to set a departure date to help get her beleaguered Brexit deal over the line as ‘a matter of arithmetic’.
Michael Gove (right) has emerged as a ‘consensus’ candidate who could bring the crucial backing of both Remainers and Brexiteers, and act as a caretaker Prime Minister should a plot to force Mrs May (left) from office go ahead
Cabinet sources have told The Mail on Sunday that Mr Lidington was initially ‘reluctant’ to step into the role of ‘caretaker’ but was told it would be a ‘four-month job’ with a strict mandate
But others have simply decided her time is up and have spent the last three days plotting how to oust her.
A senior Downing Street source told this newspaper: ‘Discussions about the Prime Minister’s future are ongoing.’
On Friday evening, David Lidington, the pro-EU Cabinet Office boss and de facto deputy PM, was said to be in the ‘advanced stages’ of a plot to force Mrs May from office and herald a long Brexit extension as an interim leader who could build a cross-party Brexit deal.
But as news of the plan leaked, it sparked a furious Cabinet backlash that saw Michael Gove emerge as a ‘consensus’ candidate who could bring the crucial backing of both Remainers and Brexiteers.
Cabinet sources have told The Mail on Sunday that Mr Lidington was initially ‘reluctant’ to step into the role of ‘caretaker’ but was told it would be a ‘four-month job with a three-pronged mandate: to negotiate a long extension, to oversee testing of what Parliament wants and to ensure a fair Tory leadership contest.’
A source said: ‘David is 60. It would be his last job in politics and what a way to go out. The key players are on board. It’s just a matter of when.’
The Mail on Sunday has learnt that Cabinet big beasts including Amber Rudd and Jeremy Hunt have urged Mr Lidington to ‘knock on the door and call time’ on Mrs May’s premiership.
The Mail on Sunday has learnt that Cabinet big beasts including Amber Rudd and Jeremy Hunt have urged Mr Lidington to ‘knock on the door and call time’ on Mrs May’s premiership
In the febrile atmosphere in Westminster, there were even claims Michael Gove had initially supported Mr Lidington acting as caretaker, with one source claiming the plot was ‘far less factional than Brexit lines’.
However, as word of Mr Lidington’s manoeuvrings ripped through Westminster on Friday evening, Brexiteer Ministers were quick to brand the Cabinet politicking a ‘Remainer coup’, with former Vote Leave boss Mr Gove touted by Ministers and MPs for the job instead.
One senior Cabinet Minister told The Mail on Sunday: ‘The British public will never forgive us if, in a time of historical crisis, our answer is David Lidington.
‘This is where it is going to get very scary, whatever you think about it.
‘If we do not deliver Brexit, we are so unbelievably f*****, not just as a party or a government, but in a national way. Now is the time to be bold. A customs union is a cop out – it’s the easiest solution for Parliament but the worst solution for the country.
‘It has to be her deal, or no deal. We cannot be allowed to drift into the worst position and that is what David Lidington is manoeuvring us to – there is no upside to it.’
And another Cabinet Minister branded the plot ‘a f****** coup.’
…And if he gets into No 10, will old foe Boris ever get him out?
Bookies last night slashed Michael Gove’s odds of being the next Prime Minister.
The Environment Secretary is now 5/1 joint favourite with his rival Boris Johnson to take the Tory crown.
Should Mr Gove secure the keys to No 10, it would be a remarkable turnaround after he stabbed Mr Johnson in the back during in the 2016 Tory leadership battle, when he withdrew his support for his fellow Brexit campaigner at the last minute so he could stand himself.
Bitter rivals: Michael Gove and Boris Johnson pull pints of beer at the Old Chapel pub in Darwen in Lancashire, as part of the Vote Leave EU referendum campaign
Having initially been sacked by the victorious Theresa May, Mr Gove was subsequently brought back into the Cabinet fold and has spent the last year being studiously loyal to the Prime Minister in public, as he sought to repair his reputation among the Tory grassroots. Although Mr Gove was touted as a ‘consensus caretaker’ last night, Mr Johnson will be wary of letting his nemesis become Tory leader without a fight.
Last night, a Ladbrokes spokesman said: ‘Money for Michael Gove in the past few days has left the firm with no choice but to cut his odds of becoming the next PM. Mr Gove continues to attract punters’ cash.’
Outside of the Cabinet, one Minister furiously rejected Mr Lidington stepping in, saying: ‘You might as well put the permanent secretaries in charge.’
They added: ‘This is a pipe dream for the bland brigade, who must be deluded if they think replacing uncertainty with more uncertainty is going to fix anything.’
The backlash also broke on to the airwaves and social media, as Tory MPs began openly discussing Mrs May standing down.
After it emerged Mr Lidington had discussed soft-Brexit plans with Labour MPs, Tory Brexiteer Michael Fabricant compared his pro-EU stance to that of Britain’s appeasing of Hitler in the 1930s.
The outspoken backbencher hit out: ‘With the PM acting like Chamberlain, we now have David Lidington freelancing and acting like Lord Halifax hoping to come to an accommodation with Labour. Enough is enough!’ Asked if the PM would still be in post by next month, fellow Tory Marcus Fysh told BBC2’s Newsnight: ‘I don’t know.’
‘We are starting to get to the stage where it really would have been good to have better negotiations going on,’ he added. And fellow Leaver James Duddridge, tweeted ‘#Resign’.
Tory peer Lord Gadhia said: ‘She may not survive to the end of the week.’ He added: ‘It is quite possible that she herself may decide “actually, look, I am an obstacle to a resolution of this process”. So we may have a very dramatic week.’
Leadership speculation is gripping all corners of the parliamentary Conservative party, with other Ministers privately accepting that a General Election under a new leader would be needed to achieve a fresh mandate from the public ahead of Round Two of EU negotiations over a trade deal.
And Brexiteer hardliners in the European Research Group are determined not to repeat their disastrous implosion during the 2016 leadership battle which allowed Mrs May, who had campaigned to Remain, to come through the divided Brexiteers.
Senior MPs in the ERG plan to hold their own leadership contest to unite around one candidate. They point out a Brexiteer only needs to come second, with 105 MPs behind them, to proceed to the final round – a vote of the overwhelmingly Eurosceptic party membership.
Last night a source close to Mr Lidington said the claims from his Cabinet colleagues were ‘nonsense’, adding: ‘David has not discussed anything of the sort. His focus is on getting the PM’s deal agreed’.