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Could Grant Shapps’ plot to bring down Theresa May succeed?

The planned ultimatum by disgruntled MPs could fizzle out – or it could catch fire.

Shortly after Boris Johnson left university, he wrote a short essay on the art of winning election to the Oxford Union. One of the bits of advice he gave was never to trust anyone else's numbers: "I knew one hack who claimed to control 50 votes. I doubt he controlled five."

It's a useful rule of thumb in real politics, too. So when Grant Shapps, outed in the Times as the man behind the plot to oust Theresa May, tells the BBC he has collected the names of "more than two-dozen, perhaps up to 30", it's safe to assume that the actual number is closer to two-dozen than 30. In any case, he is short of the 48 names needed to clear the 15 per cent threshold for a vote of no confidence in May as Conservative leader.

Many of the rebel MPs believe that the Tory whips are the ones who leaked Shapps' name to the Times, in order to smoke him out. The gamble is that in revealing that he doesn't have 48 MPs yet it encourages some of the already dissenting to quietly return to the fold – but the risk is that it means those on the fence decide it's now or never.

Which of these possibilities will happen is anyone's guess. It could be that the planned Monday ultimatum by disgruntled MPs fizzles out, and it could be that it catches fire. A lot hinges on what happens over the weekend, not only in Conservative WhatsApp groups, but on the Sunday shows and crucially the reaction to the PM in the country.

In my New Statesman column, I wrote about the fragile equilibrium at the heart of the Conservative Party. That balance was tilted a little by Theresa May's lacklustre speech. A bad poll or headline in the Sunday papers could yet tip it up entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Commons Confidential: Tories turn on “Lord Snooty”

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

With the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary rapidly approaching, Jeremy Corbyn’s office is scrambling to devise a celebration that doesn’t include Tony Blair. Peace in Northern Ireland is a sparkling jewel in the former prime minister’s crown, perhaps the most precious legacy of the Blair era. But peace in Labour is more elusive. Comrade Corbyn’s plot to airbrush the previous party leader out of the picture is personal. Refusing to share a Brexit referendum platform with Blair and wishing to put him in the dock over Iraq were political. Northern Ireland is more intimate: Corbyn was pilloried for IRA talks and Blair threatened to withdraw the whip after the Islington North MP met Gerry Adams before the 1997 election. The Labour plan, by the way, is to keep the celebrations real – focusing on humble folk, not grandees such as Blair.

Beleaguered Tory Europeans call Brextremist backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg – the hard-line European Research Group’s even harder line no-dealer – “Lord Snooty” behind his back. The Edwardian poshie, who orchestrates Theresa May’s taxpayer-funded Militant Tendency (members of the Brexit party within a party are able to claim “research” fees on expenses), is beginning to grate. My irritated snout moaned that the Beano was more fun and twice as informative as the Tories’ own Lord Snooty.

Labour’s Brexit fissures are getting bigger but Remainers are also far from united. I’m told that Andy Slaughter MP is yet to forgive Chuka Umunna for an “ill-timed” pro-EU amendment to last June’s Queen’s Speech, which led to Slaughter’s sacking from the front bench for voting to stay in the single market. The word is that a looming customs union showdown could trigger more Labexits unless Jezza embraces tariff-free trade.

Cold war warriors encouraging a dodgy Czech spy to smear Comrade Corbyn couldn’t be further from the truth about his foreign adventures. In Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Corbyn recalled spending a night in Burundi pumping up footballs. The club offered to donate shirts for an aid trip but he asked for the balls to be shared by entire African villages. He was War on Want, not Kim Philby.

Screaming patriot Andrew Rosindell, the chairman of an obscure flags and heraldry committee, is to host a lecture in parliament on the Union Jack. I once witnessed the Romford Tory MP dress Buster, his bull terrier, in a flag waistcoat to greet Maggie Thatcher. She walked past without noticing.

A Tory MP mused that Iain Duncan Smith was nearly nicknamed “Smithy”, not “IDS”, for his 2001 leadership campaign. Smithy would still have proved a lousy commander.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia