Beleaguered PM is contrite and genuine in crunch meeting with 1922 Committee, promising to build consensus on Brexit
A contrite Theresa May bought herself time with Conservatives MPs by apologising for failing to secure an overall majority, while cabinet sources indicated that the prime minister would pursue a more conciliatory approach on Brexit to shore up her leadership.
May addressed a packed session of her partys backbench 1922 Committee on Tuesday with what was described as an upfront mea culpa. She declared: I got us into this mess, and Im going to get us out of it.
Senior insiders added that one of the ideas actively being considered to win backing across parliament was not to major on the controversial no deal is better than a bad deal position taken by May before the election.
Also under consideration is whether to exclude overseas students from the immigration numbers and even possibly to abandon the target to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands. Although nothing has been agreed, any softening of the position on immigration could maximise the chance of a closer economic relationship with the EU.
May also admitted that the manifesto promise to make people pay more for their social care had been a mistake and said there would be no weakening of LGBT rights as the Tories attempted to secure an electoral pact on Tuesday with the socially conservative Democratic Unionist party.
The prime minister said more would be done to reach out to young voters and those working in the public sector. She was contrite and genuine, but not on her knees, said one senior MP who attended the meeting, adding that May had shown a warmer side. There was none of the Maybot, the person added, claiming that any talk of a leadership challenge had been silenced, for now at least.
Speaking after the meeting, MPs made clear that the prime minister had bought herself time with hopes that she could make it to the end of Brexit talks in two years.
A cabinet member admitted that work was under way on how to achieve a deal with the EU27 that could pass through a much more finely balanced parliament, involving seeking areas of compromise with other parties. Reports in the Telegraph and Evening Standard claimed that secret talks had already begun between cabinet ministers and some Labour MPs.
Any shift in tone will be seen as a coup for advocates of a soft Brexit, although those who campaigned to leave the EU are also offering their support to the prime minister.
Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, who has won more influence after the party took 13 seats in Scotland, said she was pushing for an open Brexit with maximum economic access after a private meeting with May in Downing Street. Davidson added that the party needed to reach out: I do think that there can be changes in the offer of Brexit as we go forward.
Downing Street is also preparing to put forward a skeleton version of a Queens speech, as the parliamentary mathematics threatens to bring domestic policymaking to a halt unless the Tories reach out to opposition parties.
The annual list of legislation, which may be delayed from 19 June, will have two big-ticket items of Brexit and counter-terrorism policy, but see most of the domestic agenda ditched, according to one source. Mays plans for a sweeping shakeup of education including new grammar schools could be boiled down to a few pilots, they said.
However, despite jitters within the party and suggestions that Mays days are numbered, her performance in front of the 1922 Committee appeared to reduce anger about the shock result. After the vote stripped the Conservatives of their majority and plunged the government into instability and the need for coalition talks with the DUP, Heidi Allen, the MP for South Cambridgeshire, said the prime minister would be gone within six months.
However, after the 1922 meeting, Allen who has fought her own party over disability benefit cuts and tough positioning on Brexit said: I saw an incredibly humble woman who knows what she has to do, and that is be who she is and not what this job had turned her into. She has lost her armadillo shell and we have got a leader back.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the Conservative MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who has been an outspoken proponent of Brexit, said: It was very positive to hear her take very firm responsibility for not being able to crystallise some of the seats wed hoped to win. I felt she had very deeply considered over the weekend whether she should continue and came to us to say: I will continue for as long as you want me to do so. And I think thats exactly what we all hoped she would say.
MPs said there was a tacit acceptance of the need to build a better consensus. A broader backing for Brexit has to be built and I think she recognises that, one former minister said. She was clear she was responsible. She agreed on the need to listen to all the wings of the party on Brexit.
One remainer on the left of the party was teary-eyed as they expressed their renewed support for the prime minister, while a hardline Brexiter agreed, describing her as very, very humble and saying: She has bought herself time. She showed a side of her that was very appealing. A warmer side.
At the centre of the debate were concerns about the manifesto. MPs admitted that it had been a disaster with voters, particularly the so-called dementia tax and the decision to press ahead with school funding cuts. Public sector workers felt very strongly about austerity, a former cabinet minister said. We have to offer a message of aspiration, which is a very Conservative word.
Jeremy Corbyns massive gains with public sector workers appear to have driven anti-austerity into the centre of political debate, even among Conservatives. May acknowledged several warnings from MPs who described meeting people who said they could not vote Tory because of cuts to hospitals, schools or failure to increase public sector wages in real terms.
Anna Soubry told the Guardian it had been an issue she repeatedly encountered on the doorstep. Writing in a local newsletter, she added: We need a kinder Conservatism that recognises the very real concerns about reduced school budgets, a shortfall in NHS and social care funding, and that some of our most valued public servants such as nurses, have had their wages cut.
Others argued that it was OK for the Tories to keep their position but that they had failed to make the economic argument during the campaign. Soubry said it was outrageous that the chancellor, Philip Hammond, had not been given a bigger role in the campaign.
Several MPs told May they had had difficulties rebutting questions over school funding on doorsteps and in local hustings. May said that Justine Greening would address the concerns, and sources stressed that the education secretary had been making the case for better funding for schools for some time.
Tories banged on the tables for about 30 seconds as May arrived for the crunch meeting in a roasting hot room packed with members of the House of Lords as well as MPs. May took questions, but one MP described them as more like speeches.
There was no appetite for a leadership election, the MP said. Thats the last thing the country needs. She said she would serve us as long as we want her, and that shes been a party servant since she was 12 years old, stuffing envelopes.
MPs were pleased that the prime minister had removed her joint chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, as she pointed instead to her new top aide, the former Tory MP Gavin Barwell, and the chief whip, Gavin Williamson. One MP said that the party had faith in the two Gavins.