A group of Tory MPs have sent letters to Theresa May asking for her to be sacked and for her decision to back an amendment supporting the UK’s Brexit deal to be reversed – an effort that would set the stage for a hard Brexit and Theresa May to be replaced.
That effort comes after Boris Johnson became the most senior cabinet minister to defy the prime minister’s instruction not to confirm in public that he had voted in favour of the amendment to the Queen’s speech vote last Wednesday.
The amendment, tabled by Dominic Grieve and backed by the former Brexit secretary David Davis, called for parliament to be given a vote on whether the next government can enter into any future agreement with the EU.
The move sparked Theresa May’s anger on Thursday and led a “no confidence” letter in her leadership to be written to the 1922 committee. Four Conservative MPs have now sent the letter to Graham Brady, the chairman of the committee, which will meet on Monday.
The final 38 of that letter have to be submitted by Monday, before the group could trigger an early ballot. The earliest the committee could meet is Friday at its next scheduled meeting but a source close to Brady suggested it may meet sooner.
The group of MPs who had sent the letter included Esther McVey, the former welfare secretary, who has been a vocal backer of the government’s fiscal stance in the European Union (withdrawal) bill.
Other rebels include the Brexiter Dominic Raab, the former education secretary Nicky Morgan, the backbencher Charlie Elphicke, and Andrew Bridgen, a Leaver who also raised a confidence vote in the past, when Boris Johnson was made foreign secretary.
A source close to the MP Conor Burns, who also sent a letter on Thursday to Brady, said Burns was no longer taking part.
Johnson refused on Friday to clarify whether he had voted for the amendment. The backbencher made clear that he had not received permission from No 10 to speak out publicly, which is why he only told allies that he had voted in favour.
But on Friday night, Johnson tweeted: “Standing up for citizens in Westminster at a time when they are under attack is an act of great principle. I have voted against the government dozens of times over its plan for Brexit.”
Dominic Grieve, the former EU attorney general who sparked the incident, said he had seen a letter from Tim Loughton, the Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, which requested another take-up of the confidence vote.
But he insisted he was not involved in any letter-writing or taking part in a Commons whip operation. “We have done the coup. We have done it for what it is worth,” he said.
There was no sign of the letter writers in the Palace of Westminster on Friday morning, as Tory backbenchers congregated around the office of James Cleverly, the MP for Braintree, who resigned his cabinet post as minister without portfolio because of his new position.
The party whips were initially only interested in removing the cabinet ministers who voted against May in favour of a second referendum – which they said was 10 of the 27 and would necessitate a confidence vote. But May’s advisers were cautious about triggering the confidence vote this way as it would make the party look too riven.
Instead, they decided to send support to MPs who were dissatisfied with the vote – a move which led to efforts at a rebellion by several MPs in the other 24 MPs who were absent, following warnings from the Tory whips. Some Conservative MPs felt they were being used as a bargaining chip.
Three high-profile rebels – Michael Gove, Amber Rudd and Owen Paterson – were spared, but given an assurance from the prime minister that they would have the right to lead backbench business.
There was a clear reluctance to depose May at this point because of a lack of leadership, but one source familiar with the matter said that if the early confidence vote was judged successful, May would stand down, and the likes of Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Esther McVey would have a good chance of taking over as party leader.
It is believed that Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, has backed Theresa May, but other close colleagues have been less than supportive. One senior Tory said: “The longer we go on, the more we will lose the Brexit-friendly Tories.”