Prime Minister Theresa May has insisted her former chief whip Sir Graham Brady will still back her in a secret Tory leadership election.
A defiant Mrs May faced a barrage of criticism after telling a breakfast meeting of MPs on Tuesday she had spoken to Mr Brady to “assure him that I am the right person to lead this country”.
Asked if she still had his backing, Mrs May said: “He has made it very clear that he is not backing me.
“It is his right to do that. He did in the past.”
Mrs May was speaking after a flurry of criticism of her Peppa Pig pitch which was leaked to The Times.
The Prime Minister caused a Twitter storm last night by revealing the cartoon character, the BBC’s Nick Robinson, who was the host of Newsnight, was a master of the French language.
Describing the £4.5 billion project as the “most important” expansion of the NHS in years, the Conservative party leader added: “Peppa Pig will not be joining the bus to Calais.”
Sir Graham Brady revealed he was keeping his decision to back the Prime Minister to himself and has not told anyone, including other party leaders.
He told Sky News: “I haven’t spoken to Boris Johnson.”
Sir Graham added: “I have not spoken to Theresa May about the issue of the leadership.
“The leadership election is not open and shut, there is going to be a process.”
‘She is speaking directly to my mind’
Labour’s Frank Field, who led the Sunday Times leadership challenge, said Boris had warned him of his desperation to stop Mrs May and move her on, but insisted he was not convinced she would go.
The veteran Labour MP said he had never said he would back Mrs May for another leadership challenge.
Speaking on Newsnight, he said: “There is a soft campaign against Theresa May going on in my party.
“It is a campaign that is not based on her record in office at all. It is a soft campaign based on her personality.
“There is a weakness in Boris, which I take his side on, that she is speaking directly to my mind.”
But Mr Field said he had a “neighbourly respect” for Mr Johnson, who he described as “one of the high priests of modern Britain”.
“There is someone who has an international reputation and whose cheeky sense of humour, which is a good side of him, just a temporary flaw.”
The opposition to Mrs May’s Peppa Pig comments was led by former director general of the BBC Mark Thompson.
He said: “We British are famously self-deprecating, but if we really want to get a grip on our colleagues here in the Tory party, and cross-party teams across Europe, we have a responsibility to make it quite clear that this kind of dismissal of migrants and foreigners is not acceptable anywhere in the UK.
“And a Tory politician in that context, suggesting we are under threat from a marionette or other family of cartoon characters, isn’t only breathtakingly poor-taste, it is also a difficult first step into a concept I don’t have much time for: tribalism.”
Respected ex-Cabinet minister Alan Duncan said there was an element of “maternal” comment to the speech.
“I don’t know that there is a sense of malice here, I think it is what might be termed a weak blow in an attempt to plead dad’s seat and persuade her there is a way out of this,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Writing for the Daily Telegraph, he wrote: “There should have been more independence from either her own party or for the fact that she is probably prime minister.”
Mrs May was accused of “insulting” voters with the pea-pinching line and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall said that she was “doing her job by insulting voters”.