Theresa May has issued a defiant response to critics who have questioned her future as Conservative leader, declaring: “I’m not a quitter.”
After a torrid week of Westminster speculation about possible challenges to her position, the Prime Minister insisted that she was getting on with the job of delivering on the real-life issues which matter to voters.
Mrs May admitted that there was “always more for us to do” on issues such as housing and schools and appeared to acknowledge that she had not done enough to get her message across to voters.
But, in a message apparently directed at grumbling Tory backbenchers, she said it was time for Conservatives to speak out more loudly about the Government’s achievements.
Asked by reporters travelling with her on a trade mission to China whether she expected to lead the Tories into the next election, Mrs May said: “First and foremost, I’m serving my country and my party. I’m not a quitter and there’s a long-term job to be done.
“That job is about getting the best Brexit deal, it’s about ensuring that we take back control of our money, our laws, our borders, that we can sign trade deals around the rest of the world. But it’s also about our domestic agenda.”
Responding to former minister Robert Halfon’s suggestion that she had governed like a tortoise when a lion was needed, Mrs May retorted: “I have never tried to compare myself to any animal, or bird, or car, or whatever comparisons that sometimes people use.
“There’s a focus to the Government. Yes, we want to get Brexit right and we are working on that, but we also alongside that are working on the key issues that matter to people on a day-to-day basis.”
Mrs May steered clear of direct criticism of backbenchers who have accused her of lacking drive and publicly described her agenda as “dull”.
But she pointedly added: “We need to ensure that we do speak about the achievements that we’ve seen.”
She pointed to the reduction of unemployment to its lowest level since 1975, a cut in the educational attainment gap between children from rich and poor backgrounds, stamp duty relief for first-time buyers and GDP growth.
“If you look at what, as Conservatives in government, we’ve achieved in terms of national minimum wage increases, the lowest unemployment since 1975, what we’ve done in school attainment with 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools - all of these things make a big difference to people’s lives on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
“That’s what people raise when you go on the doorsteps and talk to people. It’s those issues that matter to them and that’s what we are delivering on.”
She said: “Is there more for us to do, to talk to people about what we are achieving and what we are doing? Yes, there’s always more, to talk to people about what we are achieving.
“Sometimes (Tory MPs) say ‘1.9 million more children in good and outstanding schools, but we need to go further’. Yes, of course we do, and that’s what we are doing.”
Mrs May made clear she was proud that first-time buyers have reached their highest level since before the 2007 financial crisis, describing housing as “an area we need to be pushing on” where there would be more Government announcements to come.
Pushed on whether she would fight to keep her job if disgruntled MPs forced a vote of no confidence, Mrs May said: “You always like talking about hypothetical situations. Let’s talk about now and what we are doing now.”
“I am doing what I think is important for the sake of the country... What I feel about this is that actually we’ve got a job to do.”
She brushed off suggestions that Conservative leadership rules - which require the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady to call a vote when he has received 48 letters from MPs - leave a sword hanging over the head of a serving prime minister.
“The rules that are set are a matter for the party,” she said.
We are in Government. The next general election isn’t until 2022. What we are doing now is doing the job that the British people asked for a government to do.”