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Time for Theresa May to do or quit

Credit: PA

Almost everyone who saw Theresa May's ordeal of a speech at Tory conference feels sorry for her.

The problem for her is that leaders with more than a temporary shelf life don't need pity. They want and need respect - and because she has been struggling to regain that, she is vulnerable.

That is why the manoeuvres of the former Tory chairman Grant Shapps to see her ousted - which began in a public sense when he appeared on Peston on Sunday last weekend - are more damaging than Boris Johnson's recent civil disobedience.

Johnson's public display of disloyalty can be characterised as the cynical pursuit of personal ambition. Shapps can present himself - for all his own thwarted ambition - as the mouthpiece of anxious backbenchers and members.

So the life-or-death question for May is whether Shapps and Johnson are in cahoots.

Her team think that they are. One of them told me this: "Grant met with Boris, Amanda Milling and Jake Berry to discuss matters in the second week of the September sitting."

Berry and Milling are important Johnson supporters in the Commons.

Credit: PA

Now for what it is worth, Johnson's camp vehemently denies any such meeting took place.

So I relay the anecdote more as evidence of the cancerous climate of mistrust between May on the one hand and Johnson and Shapps on the other.

This would be no way to run a Sunday morning kids' football team, let alone a cabinet and country.

May needs to find a way to exert her authority, and regain that precious respect. The moment is approaching when she may have to insist that her opponents put up or shut up - and show whether they have the numbers for a leadership challenge, and have the stomach to pull the trigger.

The status quo, of relentless speculation about her grip on office, is unsustainable. For May, it's do or quit time.