- Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand
The Conservative party must get rid of Theresa May as leader now or risk being stuck with her until another general election, Tory Brexiter Jacob Rees-Moog has said.
But the leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) admitted that Tory rebels were struggling to reach the required number of supporters needed to force a confidence vote in the prime minister.
He insisted, however, that there was little enthusiasm among Tory MPs for Mrs May to take them into the next election, due in 2022.
"I think it is now or the Prime Minister will lead the Conservatives into the next election," he told reporters at a Westminster news conference.
"You find MPs privately who will say to you they think that is a really good idea in any number and I would be quite surprised."
His comments come the day before Mrs May was due to travel to Brussels on Wednesday for Brexit talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
Downing Street said the meeting was part of the “ongoing negotiations over the future framework” agreement with the EU.
It is understood the talks are set to focus on future long-term relations between the UK and EU, rather than on the withdrawal deal that Mrs May unveiled last week.
The move follows a stormy few days for Mrs May, which have seen the DUP deliver a warning shot across Government bows after accusing the Prime Minister of breaking fundamental promises on Brexit.
In another cause for concern for the PM, Mrs May’s Spanish counterpart Pedro Sanchez has said Madrid will vote against the withdrawal deal at a special EU summit on Sunday if Gibraltar’s future is not considered a bilateral issue between the UK and Spain.
Justice Secretary David Gauke said a move to oust Mrs May was "irresponsible and self-indulgent"
He told ITV News: "I'd say to my colleagues that this is the very worst time to engage in leadership speculation or an attempted coup."
Mr Gauke said the prime minister should remain in office even if Parliament votes down her Brexit deal.
The DUP showed its anger with Mrs May’s Brexit deal by joining with Labour to cut the Government’s majority to just five in a Commons vote on the Budget.
They also abstained on a series of other amendments to the Finance Bill on Monday night, in a move intended to send a “political message” to the Prime Minister.
Their actions appeared to call into question the future of the “confidence and supply” arrangement by which the DUP props up Mrs May’s minority Conservative Government.
Under the terms of the deal, agreed after Mrs May lost her Commons majority in last year’s general election, the Northern Ireland party is supposed to back the Government on Budget matters and on confidence votes.
But DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson said Mrs May’s deal with Brussels breached a “fundamental” assurance that Northern Ireland would not be separated constitutionally or economically from the rest of the UK.
Mr Gauke said there would we discussions about the relationship between the Conservatives and the DUP.
He said: "If we want greater stability over the months and years ahead we want to be able to work with the DUP."
In a bid to sway opinion, Mrs May has insisted that her draft Brexit deal puts Northern Ireland in a “fantastic position” for the future.
In an opinion piece published in the Belfast Telegraph, she claimed the region’s constitutional status within the UK had been guaranteed in the agreement.
Mrs May acknowledged that there had been a lot of focus on the Irish border “backstop” and said she “understood and share some of the concerns that have been expressed”.
But she said the backstop was an “acceptable insurance policy” due to provisions in the deal.
The DUP warning adds to the pressure on the Prime Minister just as the Tory bid to unseat her by Brexiteers appeared to have stuttered.
Members of the Conservative European Research Group were last week confidently predicting they would get the 48 letters of no confidence needed to trigger a vote in her leadership.
However, there has been no announcement from the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, that they have reached that tally, while the number of MPs who have publicly declared they submitted letters remains in the twenties.
There were also reports that the so-called “pizza club” group of Cabinet Brexiteers was backing away from a plan to go to the Prime Minister to demand she re-opens negotiations with Brussels on a key element of the agreement.
Michael Gove, who last week turned down the job of Brexit Secretary following the resignation of Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt, Liam Fox and Chris Grayling were all reported to be unhappy with the terms over the Northern Ireland border.
However, there was little sign that they were preparing to force a fresh showdown at the weekly meeting of the Cabinet in Downing Street on Tuesday.