Theresa May was facing mounting pressure as a string of Tory MPs criticised her leadership and Government, with one saying the party was “letting this country down”.
The Prime Minister was urged to “get a grip” and give some “direction” to her promises to tackle “burning injustices” while one MP compared the speed of the Government’s policy-making to a tortoise.
Tory discontent over Mrs May’s leadership and Brexit has led to reports that the number of MPs who have written to the backbench 1922 Committee calling for a contest is close to the trigger point needed to force a battle aimed at toppling the PM.
And a briefing war appeared to play out at the weekend between potential contenders, Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson.
Sources said the Defence Secretary was the victim of smears following anonymous and incorrect briefings that he leaked intelligence, but an unnamed Foreign Office official criticised the tone of an interview he gave warning Russia could kill many thousands of Britons.
He told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “I think what I say to all my colleagues is the Conservative family – left, right and centre, because we’re a broad church – needs to come together in a spirit of mutual respect, there are differences in any broad church, and look at what the bigger picture is showing.
“The bigger picture is showing that after eight years in Government, we are still neck and neck with the Labour Party in the polls, we’re taking seats off them in places like Bolton in local government elections last week.
“And the other thing my colleagues need to remember is look at last week’s news – unemployment, lowest level for 40 years… new borrowing figures lower than expected, new growth figures higher than expected.”
But several Tories appeared exasperated.
Heidi Allen, known as an independent voice on the backbenches, said the party needs to “get a grip and lead”.
She tweeted a photo of the Sunday Times front page which carried the headline “Tories in turmoil”, adding: “And yet the old guard hangs on in and doesn’t understand why we need to change, saying MPs like me aren’t ‘proper Torys.’ Good God we need to get a grip and lead. We are letting this country down.”
Normally loyal backbencher Nigel Mills said the PM has not delivered on her early promises to tackle “burning injustices” and that MPs are concerned about the Government’s lack of direction.
He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “I think the frustration is the Prime Minister had what I thought was exactly the right drive and the right belief when she first came into office and it’s hard to see exactly how we’re making progress on that.
“We need to show a sense of what our values are, where we’re going, where we want to get to, and if that timeframe has to be 18 months or two years to deliver something, well then that’s fine, we can explain why that is.
“But I think where people are perhaps just a little concerned is perhaps we don’t quite know what that direction is, what those policies are going to look like or where they’re going to perhaps come from in that situation.
“I think we’ve perhaps lost some of that reforming zeal when we came into office that Michael Gove had in education, that Iain Duncan Smith had in welfare.”
Meanwhile, Mr Lidington’s predecessor Damian Green, who was sacked from his role following allegations about pornography on his office computer, denied “liking” a tweet in which Jewish Chronicle editor Stephen Pollard described Mrs May as “hopeless”, claiming it was a “mistake”.
Conservative former minister Rob Halfon, who was sacked by Mrs May, warned that Labour would profit unless the party tackled injustice.
He told World At One: “We need to have less policy-making by tortoise and (more) policy-making by lion. Because we have to be radical. We have to stop seeing politics in transactional terms.”
Respected backbencher Johnny Mercer refused to comment on the PM’s future but told the Mail on Sunday she must face down domestic challenges such as the NHS as well as dealing with Brexit “or we will pay the price” with voters.
Grant Shapps, who led a botched coup attempt after Mrs May’s mishap-strewn conference speech in October, urged the PM to name a date when she will stand down and warned more letters were being sent to 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady at the weekend.