Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday urged her Conservative party to rally behind her in the political centre ground and unite Britain after deep divisions exacerbated by Brexit.
May called for Conservatives to back her “Chequers” Brexit plan and build a “decent, moderate and patriotic” party, in a keynote speech at the close of the party’s annual conference in Birmingham.
She attacked the main opposition Labour party and accused its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, of rejecting “the common values that once bridged our political divide.”
“We need to be a party for the whole country,” May said. “A party not for the few, not even for the many, but for everyone who is willing to work hard and do their best.”
May has faced speculation about her leadership in recent weeks after criticism from outspoken former foreign secretary Boris Johnson and other Conservative eurosceptics who strongly oppose her blueprint for exiting the European Union.
She insists that the proposals – involving a common rulebook with the EU on the trade of goods – offer the best deal for Britain.
The eurosceptics want a “clean break” with the EU that would allow Britain to negotiate a looser, Canada-style deal with Brussels and to pursue closer trade links with major non-EU economies.
At a packed conference fringe event on Tuesday, Johnson again urged May to “chuck Chequers,” to loud applause from hundreds of supporters.
Conservative lawmaker James Duddridge, who praised Johnson’s speech, wrote to the party’s influential 1922 Committe on Wednesday to request a leadership contest, saying he wants a leader who “believes in Brexit.”
“We need a strong leader, someone who believes in Brexit and someone to deliver what the electorate voted for,” Duddridge wrote to the committee, which would have to organize a leadership contest if at least 48 lawmakers request one.
“The prime minister seems incapable of doing this,” he said in an email published by Sky News.
In a front-page story earlier Wednesday, the pro-Conservative Daily Telegraph said cabinet colleagues were pressing May to “set out a timetable” for her resignation as prime minister.
Some senior Conservatives had discussed plans for toppling May if she refuses to step down before a general election scheduled in 2022, the newspaper said.
But Brexit campaigner and former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage tweeted that he expected May to continue lead the country and that “Brexit will continue to be betrayed.”
May used her speech to renew her claim that EU leaders have not given sufficient respect to her Brexit proposals.
“I have treated the EU with nothing but respect – the United Kingdom expects the same,” she said.
She urged the divided party to rally behind her Brexit plan: “Even if we don’t agree on every part of this proposal, we need to come together,” she said.
May also focussed on immigration, pledging to cut low-skilled immigration from the EU after Brexit.
“The free movement of people will end, once and for all,” she said, promising a new system “based on what skills you have to offer, not which country you come from.”