A Eurosceptic coup plot against Theresa May collapsed today as leading Brexiteers were forced to swear loyalty to the Prime Minister.
Members of the hardline European Research Group (ERG) openly discussed ousting Mrs May at a meeting last night.
But the scheme backfired immediately as ERG leader Jacob Rees-Mogg and former Brexit Secretary David Davis had to swear allegiance to Mrs May.
The duo were presenting the hard Brexiteers vision of how to make the Irish border work after Britain quits the EU and could not avoid questions on the PM’s future.
Leading Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith branded the plotters ‘stupid’ after their actions overshadowed today’s policy launch.
Meanwhile, a defiant Mrs May stood by her approach at PMQs, and Downing Street insisted her blueprint was the only viable option.
The latest escalation in the Tory chaos began at a gathering of the ERG in Westminster last night.
One source said the level of manouevring against the leader was ‘amazing’.
‘There were 50 people present, openly discussing how to get rid of the PM and literally no one said ‘Oooh no, we mustn’t talk about that’,’ they said.
Another source said the discussions continued even when Tory Party whips entered the room. ‘It was brazen – really detailed discussion of how best you game the leadership rules.’
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said any MPs talking about challenging Mrs May were indulging in ‘stupid personality nonsense’.
He confirmed he was not at the meeting last night, adding: ‘You get 50 MPs of any political party together and you’re always going to get some that are going to start arguing the toss about ridiculous issues.
‘All I would say to them is: Stop it, it’s just stupid. If you’ve got nothing better to do, go and find yourself some work, because that’s the best cure for stupid personality nonsense.’
Speaking at the launch of the ERG’s Irish border plan today, Mr Rees-Mogg said: ‘I have long said, and repeated again and again, that the policy needs to be changed but I am supporting the person.
‘Theresa May has enormous virtues, she is a fantastically dutiful Prime Minister and she has my support.
‘I just want her to change one item of policy.’
Asked at the same event about the prospect of changing leader, Mr Davis said ‘we have got a very good’ prime minister and he only disagreed with her on ‘one issue’.
He said: ‘I have made very plain from when I resigned and thereafter that I think we have got a very good Prime Minister and, like Jacob, I disagree with her on one issue – this issue.’
Environment Secretary Michael Gove, one of the leading figures in Vote Leave, urged his colleagues to back away from a confrontation or risk putting the whole Brexit project at risk.
‘I urge everyone to get behind the PM. I think she is doing a great job at the moment,’ he said.
‘This is loose talk. The critical thing is to ensure that we deliver on that Brexit mandate.
‘Any diversion or any distraction from that mission means that our ability to ensure that the referendum mandate that we were given is delivered, is undermined.’
Allies of Mrs May believe the ERG does not have the numbers to defeat her.
One Cabinet minister told MailOnline that attempting a coup now would be ‘crazy’. Under Tory leadership rules, if Mrs May wins a no-confidence vote she cannot be challenged again for 12 months.
‘They would be crazy to try it now. She will win a no confidence vote, and then there is a year’s delay when she is immune to a challenge,’ the minister said.
The source also warned that the wider public would not forgive the Tories for descending into civil war rather than sorting out Brexit.
‘How would it look to the public if they somehow managed to force a contest, and we spend six weeks on that while the negotiations are at the most crucial stage?’ they added.
Supporters of Mrs May believe any Tory rebellion in a Commons vote on a Chequers-style deal would be ‘much smaller’ than the 80 MPs the ERG claims.
The tactic would be to ‘squeeze’ rebels down to a hard core, and then seek to win over Labour moderates.
The government would need to convince a group of Opposition MPs to accept ‘something that it not ideal to avoid the risk of a much worse no deal outcome’.
Mrs May’s spokesman said she would fight any no confidence vote called by her MPs.
Tory Eurosceptics today unveiled their plan for the Irish border, insisting the issue which has deadlocked the talks with Brussels can be easily solved.
The ERG report argued that technological solutions and accepting EU agricultural rules are enough to solve the issue.
Mr Rees-Mogg insisted the proposals had been drawn up from the EU’s perspective to win Brussels’ support, while Mr David said they should ‘unlock’ the negotiation.
The draft bears a striking resemblance to the model Mr Davis tried and failed to promise as Brexit Secretary before resigning in fury from the Government.
But the PM’s spokesman gave them short shrift, saying: ‘We have a commitment to no hard border in Northern Ireland ad we don’t believe that the answer is to move the border.
‘People want to live their lives as they do now and that is what the Chequers plan delivers.’
The spokesman added: ‘We have been working on the issue of the Northern Irish border for two years. We have looked at a significant number of potential solutions, we believe that that the positon put forward by Chequers is the only credible and negotiable one.’
Speaking at PMQs in the House, Mrs May defended her handling of the Brexit process.
Questioned by Tory Chris Philp on whether the £39billion divorce bill would be withheld if there was no deal with the EU, Mrs May said Britain was a ‘country that honours our obligations’.
But she insisted it was ‘very clear that we need to have a link between the future relationship and the withdrawal agreement’.
‘The specific offer was made in our desire to reach a deal with the European Union,’ she said.
‘And on the basis, as the EU themselves have said, that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, without a deal the position changes.’
The comments appeared at odds with Chancellor Philip Hammond’s position yesterday.
Giving evidence to a Lord committee, Mr Hammond acknowledged the agreement in December including the divorce bill would fall if there was no overall deal with Brussels.
However he said that would not mean an end to the UK’s obligations under international law.
He said it could lead to a ‘time-consuming’ process of legal wrangling to establish just how much was owed.
‘In the context of no negotiated exit, that agreement (to pay £39 billion), like all the other agreements that were settled between December and March subject to the caveat nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, will fall,’ he said.
‘What will not fall is our legal obligation under international law to make payments of sums which were due to the European Union. But to quantify those sums could require a complex and time-consuming process of arbitration.’
He added: ‘If we were to say we are going to sit on our hands and pay nothing we would probably expect a very hard-nosed response from the other side.’
The meeting last night followed a difficult week for the ERG in which plans to publish a detailed blueprint for an alternative Brexit have been shelved.
Sources said there was also mockery of a charm offensive in which MPs invited for dinner in Downing Street for briefings on the Chequers plan for Brexit.
Another MP present opposition to Chequers had hardened over the summer recess after MPs spent time speaking to constituency members and voters.
‘This is a fight to the death,’ he said. ‘I would be amazed if a leadership contest is not triggered straight after (Tory) conference unless she backs down.’
But some Conservatives who were there played down the plotting.
Tory MP Michael Fabricant said: ‘I attended the ERG last night. Reports of (Theresa May’s) demise are greatly exaggerated.
‘Of the 40-50 there, only 5-6 people discussed letters to the Chairman of the 1922 and they wrote ages ago. The rest of us sat in uncomfortable silence.
‘Though most are unhappy with Chequers.’
The meeting last night came just hours after Boris Johnson gave his first public show of support by attending an event hosted by its leaders.
Last week, the ERG told journalists it had drawn up a series of announcements to show it had a full alternative to Chequers.
But the plan was dropped after senior members spotted inaccuracies and warned some of the ideas would be seen as eccentric.
Leaked drafts suggested it contained a number of radical ideas, including a Star Wars-style missile defence shield, an expeditionary force to defend the Falklands and dropping all tariffs on food, which the farming establishment claims would destroy British agriculture.
One source said: ‘We had to pull it. We had to make sure every dot and comma was sensible or we would be torn apart. ‘Some of the ideas, such as the Falklands force, were nonsense. That’s got nothing to do with Brexit and should never have been in there.’
Another said some in the group had included their own pet projects, such as massively boosting defence spending, that were unrelated to Brexit.
The report, entitled A Better Deal For Britain, is now not expected to be published.