Michael Gove insisted he still has confidence in Theresa May after deciding he will stay in her Cabinet.
Following the resignation of four ministers in the wake of her poorly-received Brexit deal on Thursday, speculation was rife that the departure of the most senior Leave campaigner in her Cabinet could deal a damaging blow to the Prime Minister.
But Mrs May faces mounting pressure from within Tory ranks as further MPs called for her to be ousted.
Speaking outside his departmental office, Environment Secretary Mr Gove was asked if he had confidence in the Prime Minister and replied: “I absolutely do.”
He added: “I am looking forward to continuing to work with all colleagues in Government and in Parliament to get the best future for Britain.”
Mr Gove threw a lifeline to the Prime Minister by staying in government despite reportedly turning down the post of Brexit Secretary vacated by Dominic Raab after saying he would only take it if he could renegotiate the EU withdrawal agreement.
I believe with every fibre of my being that the course I have set out is the right one for our country and all our people. pic.twitter.com/L41ta6Wati
— Theresa May (@theresa_may) November 15, 2018
Mrs May told LBC she had “a very good conversation” with Mr Gove on Thursday, but declined to say what they had discussed, other than the future of the fishing industry after Brexit.
She said the Environment Secretary had been doing “a great job”, adding: “I haven’t appointed a new Brexit Secretary yet, but obviously I will be doing that over the course of the next day or so.”
A Downing Street spokeswoman said Mrs May was “very pleased” that Mr Gove will stay on and “continue doing the important work he is doing”.
In a half-hour phone-in on the radio station, Mrs May faced repeated calls to stand down from members of the public.
One caller told the PM that Jacob Rees-Mogg would make a better leader, while another said she had “appeased” the EU like Neville Chamberlain in his negotiations with Hitler.
Meanwhile, former culture secretary John Whittingdale and ex-minister Mark Francois were among the latest Tories to submit letters of no confidence in Mrs May as Conservative leader.
Sources indicated that the number of letters submitted to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, may now be nearing the 48 needed to trigger a vote.
A Brexiteer source said “I think we’ll push enough through today to trigger the threshold”, but “we have no idea when that means Graham will announce it”.
Another senior Brexiteer said the number was “close” to 48, adding: “People are consulting with their associations over the weekend.”
Mr Whittingdale told the Press Association: “I believe that the agreement that is being proposed does not deliver Brexit in the way that I and many others want to see.”
Former defence minister Mr Francois, the vice-chair of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tories, published his own letter, denouncing the Brexit deal as “truly awful” and warning: “I can never vote for this and neither can many of my colleagues.”
Mrs May played down suggestions that she might seek to maintain Cabinet unity by offering ministers a free vote when the Brexit deal comes before Parliament, as International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt has requested.
“There is Cabinet collective responsibility in this country. Government policy is Government policy,” she told LBC. “The Government will put its position to the House of Commons.”
The PM denied that she had had a “testy exchange” over Brexit with Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which props up her minority administration in the Commons.
But she left no doubt she was aware she cannot guarantee DUP support when Brexit comes to the Commons, saying: “Every individual MP will decide how they will vote, whether they are DUP, Conservative, Labour.
“My job is to persuade first and foremost my Conservative benches, those who are working with us – the DUP are working with us, obviously, confidence and supply – but I want to be able to say to every MP I believe this is the best deal for the UK.”
Mrs May was forced to defend her deal with Brussels to a series of callers, including Conservative-supporting councillor Daniel Turner from Louth who told her to “stand down and allow someone from the Brexit camp to take the lead”.
Asked whether she saw herself as a “modern-day Chamberlain”, she replied “no I don’t”, insisting her deal meant taking back control of the UK’s money, borders and laws.
“We’re out of the customs union, out of the single market.
“I think that’s what people voted for and that’s what I’m delivering,”
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis denounced the draft deal agreed by Cabinet on Wednesday as a “dreadful proposal” and suggested it was still possible to reopen negotiations with Brussels.
David Davis was a terrible #Brexit Secretary. He could hardly be bothered to go to Brussels & rapidly lost respect there. Preposterous for him now to suggest that EU deliberately delayed negotiations. They spent months waiting for him to engage..
— Simon Fraser (@SimonFraser00) November 16, 2018
His comment on BBC’s Today programme earned a stinging rebuke from former Foreign Office permanent secretary Sir Simon Fraser, who said: “David Davis was a terrible Brexit secretary” who could “hardly be bothered to go to Brussels”.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell claimed Labour could secure a Commons majority for a “compromise” Brexit deal.
He told Today a “unity platform” was emerging at Westminster to avoid the “catastrophic” impact of a no-deal break with the EU.