An attempt to topple Theresa May appears to have been crushed after angry Tory MPs rode to the rescue and turned their fire on the chief plotter.
Ringleader Grant Shapps, a former party chairman, was left isolated when loyalist Conservative MPs denounced him – while his backers failed to come out in public support.
Mr Shapps was branded “cowardly”, “embittered” and a fantasist, with nowhere near the 30-odd signatures he claimed of MPs wanting the Prime Minister to fall on her sword.
No 10’s tactic of apparently “outing” Mr Shapps – who resigned after a bullying scandal and has few party allies – appeared to have worked, with MPs reluctant to follow his banner.
Conservative MPs who spoke to The Independent agreed there was no powerful reason to replace the Prime Minister at the moment – despite her conference disaster.
However, her position remains perilous, with attempts to gather names against her set to continue, a stumbling economy and Brexit talks resuming next week, with no sign of the deadlock being broken.
One former minister predicted, “Grant will fail”, but suggested his mutiny would accelerate a coup attempt by a more serious player – fearing a rival is also poised to pounce.
“No one will want to start getting organised too late if they think there is going to be a contest, so Grant’s move may force someone else to show their hand,” the MP said.
The Prime Minister herself sent out a “business as usual” message on a visit in her Maidenhead constituency, claiming progress on both Brexit and her domestic agenda.
“Now what the country needs is calm leadership, and that’s what I am providing with the full support of my Cabinet,” she told reporters.
There was now “real momentum” to the withdrawal negotiations, she argued, while a bill to “cap energy prices to stop ordinary working families being ripped off” would come next week.
A day of drama began when Mr Shapps was revealed as the leader of the attempted coup after – he claimed – party whips leaked his name.
The plotters had intended to go to Ms May “privately” to persuade her to stand down, after Mr Shapps and party whips had agreed he should not disrupt the party conference.
With his role revealed, the former chairman and Cameron-supporting moderniser took to the airwaves to make the case for Ms May to resign, arguing “the writing is on the wall”.
“A growing number of my colleagues realise the solution is not to bury our heads in the sand and hope it will get better,” he said.
“That never worked for [Gordon] Brown or [John] Major and I don’t think it will work out here either.
Mr Shapps said the MPs wanting the Prime Minister to go did not agree on a replacement, which should be a choice for the Tory faithful.
“This is not about promoting an individual. It’s about having a proper and full leadership election and that should go out to party members as well.”
Some delighted in referring to “Michael Green”, the notorious pseudonym that Mr Shapps operated under during his earlier career in business.
Former minister Tim Loughton said: “The only thing that needs burying in the sand is Grant Shapps no doubt together with Michael Green.”
Michael Fabricant said: “I wouldn’t buy a used car from one embittered colleague – let alone take advice from him about who should be PM. Theresa May should remain.”
Nigel Evans said: “There is only one direction that the Shapps bandwagon is going to roll, and that is over him. May is here to stay so get on side please.”
And Nadine Dorries added: “If he has got 30 MPs on that list, Diane Abbott must be doing the adding-up. There is no way he has 30 names. The PM is safe.”
Former ministers told The Independent it was a long time until the next election, which meant MPs were not yet panicking about their jobs.
One pro-EU former minister described Ms May’s problems as being “inherent in Brexit”, which meant they could not be dodged by any replacement also set on leaving the EU.
Worse, the crown could be claimed by a Brexiteer determined that Britain should “jump off the cliff”, rather than try to achieve a negotiated withdrawal.
“Anyone wanting to replace the Prime Minister needs to say who has the magic solution to Brexit. Otherwise they will have the exact same problems,” the MP said.
Another former minister said Ms May’s conference woes had not boosted support for a coup, adding: “ What has changed because of a frog in the Prime Minister’s throat?”
No 10’s nerves were also calmed by the first poll since the Manchester meltdown at the conference, suggesting it had not damaged Ma May.
YouGov found she was still preferred over Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, by 36 per cent to 33 per cent, although Labour scored a two-point lead over the Tories as a whole.