Theresa May suffered another blow today when a fifth Cabinet minister began openly campaigning to take over her job.
In an extraordinary interview, Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom declared she was “seriously considering” standing for the Conservative leadership when Mrs May goes.
In an apparent jibe at the wounded Prime Minister, she said a “determined Brexiteer” like herself could have taken the UK out of the European Union by now.
Mrs Leadsom’s move left Mrs May looking more vulnerable than ever in a Cabinet whose members are already jockeying for position.
In a second blow to Mrs May, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox criticised No 10’s attempts to strike a deal with Jeremy Corbyn on the UK remaining in a customs union — one of Labour’s key demands in the Brexit talks.
At a trade conference in London, he said it would be “bad for Britain” and leave access to the UK’s markets as a “commodity” to be traded by Brussels.
“The EU would be able to make access to the UK market part of their offer in any trade agreement and we would find ourselves in a unique position in our trading history in that we would be being traded.
"We would be a commodity in that particular agreement, where the EU would be able to offer access to the UK as part of their offer,” he said.
“It’s a situation that would leave the UK as a rule-taker and, in terms of our ability to shape trade policy, would probably leave us in a worse situation than we are today, inside the EU.”
Former Cabinet minister Justine Greening launched a broadside from the backbenches, comparing Mrs May’s team to “captains on the Titanic, simultaneously rearranging the deck chairs whilst also blaming the iceberg for not getting out of the way”.
Writing on the Conservative Home website, she added: “This position is sinking our party and it must change.”
Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis will address Tory backbenchers at the 1922 Committee this evening, it emerged, in an attempt to rally troops ahead of European elections that are expected to end in a big defeat for the Tories.
There was frustration among senior Tory Right-wingers that Mrs May has so far refused to set a departure timetable, despite being pressed to do so by 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady.
One said reports that Mrs May intends to stay on as leader into the autumn, including the party conference, had infuriated colleagues.
“It will not wash,” said the MP, who went on: “Kicking the can down the road after appalling local elections and wasting £150 million on European elections is a failure of Corbyn and May which will have severe consequences for both parties which are displaying a reckless disregard for competence.”
The infighting follows a weekend in which four Cabinet rivals appeared to press their credentials as potential Conservative Party leaders.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt returned from a visit to Africa with his wife Lucia, talking about how he never takes off the watch she gave him, while Home Secretary Sajid Javid made a speech about how his father ran a market stall selling clothes made by his mother on the kitchen table.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove pleased farmers by stripping Natural England of its power to issue licences to shoot wild birds, and Cabinet newboy Rory Stewart admitted in a Commons committee he had “expressed an interest” in becoming Conservative leader.
Mrs Leadsom, 55, told Good Morning Britain: “I’ve supported her [Mrs May] for the last three years to get Brexit over the line and she has said she is going — so, yes, I’m seriously considering standing.”
Asked about Brexit, she suggested it would be over by now if a dedicated Brexiteer had been running the country: “If you’d had a determined Brexiteer, I suspect things might have been different. We might have been out by now on WTO [World Trade Organisation] terms, but on the other hand you would have left the country very divided.”
Describing herself as “an absolutely determined Brexiteer”, she said of the withdrawal agreement: “I’m absolutely sticking with the Prime Minister to help her get her deal over the line.”
Mrs Leadsom attacked MPs for blocking the deal, saying: “I’m disgusted at the fact that nearly three years on and we still have not left the EU. We should have been out by March 29.
“There is a fundamental problem with the way that Parliament is interpreting what leaving the EU means.”
Other Cabinet ministers being encouraged to run for leader include Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss.
Ex-minister Robert Halfon hit out at Mrs May’s leadership today, as he described the current state of the Tory Party as a “shitshow”.
Writing for ConservativeHome, he said the party should apologise to councillors who lost their seats at the local elections over the party’s disastrous handling of Brexit at a national level.
On a future general election, he said: “We are heading towards a 1997-type defeat unless we make fundamental and radical changes to our party machinery and to our policies and deliver, as instructed, a good Brexit.”
A source close to Ms Leadsom said: “The Leader made clear her continued support for the Prime Minister and her dedication to delivering Brexit as a priority over any leadership speculation.”