There is nowhere better to plot than the Palace of Westminster. There are alcoves to conspire in, little-used corridors and discreet watering holes. And no group enjoys plotting more than Tory MPs. Add a general election result that made the Tory leader a lame duck and you have the perfect ingredients for political mischief. But the Tories aren’t just plotting against Theresa May — that would be too simple, since her departure is a question of when not if. Nor is the principal conversation about who the leader should be. No, for a Tory the first stages of any leader-ship battle is to identify who they don’t want and then to set about destroying them.
No one is more plotted against than Boris Johnson. When I asked one well-connected minister who he was backing for leader, he replied, ‘Whoever will stop Boris getting into the final two.’ The Foreign Secretary’s detractors in parliament — there is no shortage of them — are determined to leave nothing to chance. Tory party rules mean the final two candidates must fight a campaign among the members in the country, which would suit Boris’s campaigning style. So they intend to stop him long before it gets to that stage.
Since the election, Tory MPs don’t agree on much. Yet there is near unanimity on the need to avoid another general election any time soon. ‘One thing the cabinet is united on is that if she wasn’t there and there was an election, say in a year’s time, we’d lose,’ one Secretary of State tells me. The belief that going back to the polls would be a disaster for the Tories is what is keeping May in place. Patience with her is limited, though, and the party’s conference in October is being seen as a deadline. A well-placed source tells me, ‘If there’s no timetable at conference it will wind people up.