Theresa May has insisted her cabinet is united and she will be leader “for the long-term” despite continued moves by Boris Johnson to undermine her authority setting the stage for a fractious Conservative party conference.
The prime minister claimed on Sunday that Johnson was fully behind her plan for Brexit, but she is under growing pressure to sack her foreign secretary for posing a challenge to her leadership.
Johnson first undermined May by publishing his personal blueprint for Brexit two weeks ago, before deciding to back her flagship speech in Florence. However, the foreign secretary renewed his insubordination before the annual conference by setting out his own four “red lines” for the EU negotiations, while his allies briefed that he is planning one last tilt at the leadership within the next year.
In an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show May was asked whether Johnson had become “unsackable” and refused to answer, suggesting that she does not feel confident enough to get rid of him without provoking an outright leadership challenge.
The Sunday Times reported that Johnson may be trying to get May to sack him because he is struggling to fund all his personal obligations on a cabinet minister’s salary of more than £140,000 a year.
May insisted she was in control of her cabinet in the Marr interview.
“What I have is a cabinet united in the mission of this government and that is what you will see this week and agreed on the approach we take in Florence,” she said. “Boris is absolutely behind the Florence speech. You’ve seen what he is saying.”
May added that people were more interested in their own jobs than the future of her job as prime minister or Johnson’s cabinet position.
She dodged a question on whether she would resign if she did not manage to get a Brexit deal and earlier told the Sunday Telegraph that she wanted to lead the party into the next election.
“I will fight the next election,” she told the newspaper. “I’m not a quitter. I’m in it for the long-term and I believe there is a long-term job to do.”
May also declined to apologise for the result of the general election, in which she lost the party’s overall majority won by David Cameron in 2015.
Her remarks are likely to alarm some Conservative MPs after she promised them after the election that her future would be in their hands and she would serve only as long as they wanted her to be leader.
At the conference in Manchester, the prime minister is trying to shore up her position by announcing a raft of policies designed to appeal to younger voters on student fees and housing. On the first day of the event, she announced:
• A freeze of the cap on student fees at £9,250 a year, a higher earnings repayment threshold and a review of the student finance system
• A £10bn extension of the help to buy scheme to help first-time buyers get on the housing ladder
• Incentives for landlords to offer longer term tenancies.
May said the party was unveiling the policies because voters felt society was not working for them “even more keenly than perhaps we’d realised”.
“Yes we’ve got to look at what happened, listen to the election and listen to voters,” she said.
Over the weekend, Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, had refused to back the idea of May leading the party into the next election in an interview with the Observer.
But on Sunday, he backtracked by expressing his “absolute confidence” in May and saying he fully hopes that she will still be prime minister when there is another contest.
He told BBC Radio 5’s John Pienaar show: “That’s what I desire, and that’s what I expect. She has the backing of her the cabinet her ministers, the party, we are all united.”
Javid also dismissed the idea that Johnson was seeking to undermine May. “We all know Boris, he can get a bit excited now and again. But the fundamental point is, he’s someone just like me and everyone else in the cabinet that is backing the PM in this agenda that we’ve got.”
While he talked up the Tories’ new youth-targeted policies, Javid did concede the party had been guilty of neglecting younger people over housing.
“I think all governments, including previous Conservative governments, have not taken this issue seriously enough in the past. We have been listening too much to those people that are against development under any circumstance. They bought their homes 20, 30, 40 years ago, they’re sitting on a nice nest egg and they don’t want to see the next generation go ahead. And that has been completely wrong, and we have recognised that.”
The new Tory pledges do not match the ambition of Labour’s manifesto, which said it would scrap student fees altogether and embark on a plan of mass housebuilding.
The prime minister insisted Jeremy Corbyn’s plans were not credible and would “wreck the economy”, but Labour dismissed May’s ideas as ineffective.
Angela Rayner, shadow education secretary, said: “The fact Theresa May thinks she can win over young people by pledging to freeze tuition fees only weeks after increasing them to £9,250 shows just how out of touch she is.”
John Healey, the shadow housing minister, said more help to buy was “yet another policy from the Tories that will only help the few, not the many”.