Theresa May vowed she would not “hide from a challenge” amid speculation she could be about to perform a Cabinet reshuffle in an attempt to repair the damage to her authority.
The Prime Minister, who appears to have seen off an immediate attempt to oust her after her mishap-hit conference speech, is still vulnerable and has come under pressure to bring new faces into her top team in an effort to revitalise her administration.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson urged Tories to get behind the Prime Minister – but acknowledged there had been a moment while MPs “sniffed the air” before rallying round the embattled premier.
And former prime minister Sir John Major hit out at the “self-absorbed” and “disloyal” behaviour of some Tories who are “driven by their own personal agenda” – comments which will be viewed as a slapdown to Mr Johnson.
Mrs May has repeatedly faced questions about whether Mr Johnson – a potential leadership rival – is “unsackable” due to her weakened position after the gamble of a general election backfired, depriving her of a Commons majority.
But asked what she might do with the Foreign Secretary, Mrs May told the Sunday Times: “It has never been my style to hide from a challenge and I’m not going to start now.
“I’m the PM, and part of my job is to make sure I always have the best people in my Cabinet, to make the most of the wealth of talent available to me in the party.”
Mrs May’s ill-starred conference speech was interrupted by a prankster who handed her a fake P45, while a persistent cough left her struggling to be heard and a backdrop began to lose letters as she made her crucial address.
The Prime Minister denied she had cried after the speech and hit out at some of the media portrayals of her.
“One minute journalists are accusing me of being an ice maiden or a robot, then they claim I’m a weeping woman in dire need of a good night’s sleep,” she told the newspaper.
“The truth is my feelings can be hurt, like everyone else, but I am pretty resilient.”
She admitted the speech was an “uncomfortable” time but never considered abandoning the address as “I am not someone who gives up”.
Questions have been asked about the security arrangements which allowed comedian Lee Nelson – real name Simon Brodkin – to carry out the P45 stunt, but Mrs May said she trusted her police protection officers “completely” – although there would “be a review into the events of the day”.
An attempted coup led by former party chairman Grant Shapps has fizzled out, but the Sunday Times claimed at least three Cabinet ministers had discussed the need to replace the Prime Minister on Thursday evening, the day after her conference calamity.
One told the newspaper “it feels to me that this is over before Christmas”.
Mr Johnson used a Sunday Telegraph column to question whether the Tory party would allow itself to be forced into “an election that no one wants”, adding: “What do you think you are doing you nutters?”
He said the party’s MPs ” have sniffed the air and turned sensibly away from the cliff”.
Sir John used a Mail on Sunday article to urge the Tories to “wake up and smell the coffee”, telling Mrs May that radical action on her social justice agenda was needed and calling on the party to unite or risk the “neo-Marxist” Jeremy Corbyn taking power.
Of Mrs May’s speech, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said she had acted in a “calm and dignified manner” in difficult circumstances.
The PM’s misfortune during the speech had been “seized on by a handful of malcontents”, Dr Fox said as he issued a call for unity in the party.
“We are the Brexit Government. We will be judged on whether or not we deliver a successful outcome for our country,” Dr Fox wrote in the Sunday Express.
“Any self-indulgence during this most crucial period will send a signal that we are more concerned with personal or party interests than with achieving the right result for Britain.”
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said there had been some “unfortunate shenanigans” in the party “but the pushback has been pretty strong” against those trying to force a leadership contest.
She hit out at colleagues engaged in “tittle-tattle”, adding that being a politician is “about delivering for the country, it’s not and should never be about private ambition” – comments likely to be viewed as a swipe at Mr Johnson.
Ms Davidson told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show the Foreign Secretary had backed the Prime Minister’s Florence speech on Brexit and Mrs May should “hold him to that”.
“He is a big intellect, a big figure in the party and if the Prime Minister believes he is the right person to be Foreign Secretary then she has my full support,” she said.
Ms Davidson voiced her “full support” for the Prime Minister. She told ITV’s Peston on Sunday : ” I think calling it a coup is perhaps flattering Mr Shapps a little bit.”
Asked if Mrs May would lead the Tory party into the next general election, she said: “Well she’d have my support if she did, because I supported her in the leadership, I support her now and I’ll support her in the future.”
She added: “I think she’s the best prime minister that we’ve got and she has my full support.
I’m actually getting a bit narked and I’m sure there’s quite a lot of women out there that are (getting) a bit narked at how many male commentators are talking about male cabinet ministers deciding what she should or shouldn’t do as if she has no agency in this herself.
“Goddammit she’s the prime minister of a G7 country, she didn’t get there by luck or by default. She has got grit, determination, dignity, she believes in service and diligence and she absolutely has my support.”