Theresa May on Friday moved to shore up her fragile position on Brexit, as Conservative Eurosceptics turned on each other after a prospective coup against the prime minister stalled.
The prime minister instructed party whips to stage an intensive campaign over the weekend to quell party unrest over her controversial Brexit deal, while she personally urged around 300 local Tory party chairs to support her.
After a torrid week in which Tory Brexiters turned on Mrs May, she enjoyed a break in the political weather after a threatened second wave of Eurosceptic cabinet resignations failed to materialise.
Michael Gove, environment secretary, and other ministers decided to remain in their posts to lead the campaign for a “better Brexit” from inside the cabinet, rather than joining Dominic Raab and Esther McVey in quitting.
Their decision infuriated fellow Brexiters, who had hoped that Mr Gove and other ministers including Liam Fox, trade secretary, Chris Grayling, transport secretary, and Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the Commons, would join an uprising against Mrs May.
“What exactly do they think they are going to change?” asked one Eurosceptic former minister. “The deal is already done. They aren’t going to change it. Gove just couldn’t stand the thought of being on the backbenches.”
Mr Gove declared his confidence in Mrs May, having only 24 hours earlier refused to serve as Brexit secretary unless he could rip up her Brexit plan. The sense of Eurosceptic disarray was compounded as a planned leadership coup hit a snag.
On Friday morning Steve Baker, lead campaigner in the European Research Group of Brexit MPs, said the party was “pretty close” to securing the 48 letters needed to trigger a vote of no-confidence in Mrs May but added it might not happen until next week.
Some 23 MPs have publicly said they have sent a letter to Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 committee; he will notify Mrs May if the 48 threshold is passed. Downing Street said it had not received such a notification.
Although Mrs May’s allies are confident she would easily win any vote of confidence, the prime minister put pressure on rebel MPs by holding a conference call with local Tory chairs on Friday, making the case for her Brexit deal.
Party whips held an emergency meeting in London on Friday to plan a counter-attack over the weekend; Mrs May’s enforcers will deploy the usual mix of charm, menace and persuasion to convince MPs to support the prime minister and her deal.
Meanwhile Mrs May circled the wagons further by bringing back into the cabinet the pro-European Amber Rudd to replace Ms McVey, a Brexiter, as work and pensions secretary.
Ms Rudd immediately turned on the rebels: “This is not a time for changing our leader. I worry sometimes colleagues are too concerned about the Westminster bubble rather than keeping their eye on what our job is — to serve people.”
Meanwhile Mr Raab was replaced as Brexit secretary by Stephen Barclay, a little-known former City minister. Downing Street said Mrs May would take personal charge of remaining negotiations with the EU on a political statement on future EU/UK relations.