Nadine Dorries has warned fellow Tories of a “complete wipeout” if there is an early general election – but dropped her call for Liz Truss to call one immediately.
The prime minister’s former ally – and now leading critic – also said Boris Johnson’s return to No 10 could not be ruled out, but called it “extremely unlikely”.
Amid the chaos of the Conservative conference, the former culture secretary accused Ms Truss of a disastrous “lurch to the right” and “cruel” tax-and-spend plans requiring an election win before they are carried out.
But, speaking to the BBC, she switched tack by saying an election is unnecessary and calling herself “still one of Liz’s biggest supporters”.
Asked about what Nadhim Zahawi, the Cabinet Office minister, has called “plotting”, Ms Dorries said: “I think those people who are doing that need to stop.
“We can’t have a leadership election, put a new leader in place and immediately start discussing about how we remove that leader. They need to stop, they need to get behind her and they need to support her.”
Ms Truss warned: “If there was a general election tomorrow, that would probably mean complete wipeout for the Conservative party.”
But Mel Stride, the influential Tory chair of the Commons Treasury committee, called the party’s mood “fairly febrile”, as MPs head back to Westminster this week.
He criticised “too many missteps” and suggested there will need to be more U-turns to regain “fiscal credibility” – on top of the climbdown on scrapping the top 45p income tax rate.
“There are a lot of backbenchers and members of the government who are very concerned at where we are in the polls. ” Mr Stride told Times Radio, adding: “There is a recognition that we have got to turn things around and start doing it very quickly.”
Earlier, Mr Zahawi dismissed suggestions that the prime minister’s position is in peril – despite admitting there is “plotting” – telling the BBC: “No, I think what the party will do is get behind Liz Truss.”
Asked if he could contemplate the Tory party asking Mr Johnson to come back, he said: “No I can’t. I think the previous prime minister is rightly telling anyone who is willing to listen… telling all colleagues ‘get behind Liz’”.
Mr Zahawi denied Suella Braverman and Penny Mordaunt, another defeated leadership candidate, had fuelled Cabinet infighting, saying: “We have Cabinet collective responsibility.”
Ms Dorries was pressed on what should happen if Ms Truss does not go back to the 2019 manifesto that delivered Mr Johnson a big Commons majority.
She replied: “The simple principle of our democracy and our unwritten constitution is that, if you’re going to have a completely fresh mandate, a completely fresh set of policy ideas and a new prime minister, it would be right to go to the country.
“Liz doesn’t need to do that. And I really hope she won’t do that when we’re 30 points behind in the polls.”