Nadine Dorries has suggested Rishi Sunak was part of a “coup” that brought down Boris Johnson, and said Conservative MPs made a “huge mistake” removing the prime minister.
The culture secretary, who is one of Johnson’s most avid supporters, said he was a “great leader” and she was “very disappointed” he would be stepping down on 5 September.
But Dorries said they had to look to the future and hailed Liz Truss as “somebody who has both integrity and loyalty and is able to pick up the baton using those very important qualities to take the country forward”.
Despite having made pointed criticisms of Sunak that have intensified a blue-on-blue slanging match between the two Tory leadership camps, Dorries tried to avoid being drawn in to criticising the former chancellor.
“It’s not a secret that things happened that shouldn’t have happened and that Boris Johnson was removed via a coup,” she told Sky News when ask for her view on Sunak.
Despite being told about a YouGov survey that found Johnson had a net favourability rating of -90% among 2019 Tory voters who plan to switch to Labour at the next election, Dorries said “I don’t actually take an awful lot of notice” of polls.
She said “there’s only one that matters”, which was the last general election result where the Conservatives clinched an 80-seat majority. Dorries said the UK had lost a leader who helped secure that victory, led the UK through Covid and offered support to Ukraine after Russia’s invasion.
But speaking from Birmingham, where the Commonwealth Games will take place from Thursday, the culture secretary declined to be drawn any further on her public criticism of Sunak.
She said the Commonwealth Games and England football team preparing for the Euro 2022 final on Sunday meant that “the next few days are not about leadership, they’re about showcasing what is great about this country”.
The Tory leadership race “will go on all through the summer”, Dorries said, adding: “It’s a really important day and I think we should be focusing on the positives.”
The interview was cut short after an altercation with a man off-screen who could be heard arguing with the camera operator filming the Sky News interview. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to go now,” she said.
A man could be heard shouting: “Touch me then? You can’t because they’ll have you arrested for assault.”
Dorries replied: “He’s not touching you,” before looking around and asking for security.
The man responded: “He can’t touch me, madam, what do you mean he ain’t touching me? He can’t, I’ll have him arrested in five seconds flat.”
Dorries doubled down on her attacks on Sunak in a later interview, saying the “ruthless coup” against Johnson was “led largely” by the former chancellor.
She stood by criticising him for wearing a pair of Prada shoes on a visit to Teesside earlier this month, saying it was “one of our most socially deprived areas”, and added: “If you’re going to be prime minister of this country, you have to understand people’s lives, you have to have walked in their shoes.”
Dorries defended owning a pair of expensive shoes herself, saying: “I am not and never will be running to be prime minister.”
She suggested it was not impossible Johnson could return as prime minister in the future. “They used to say a week was a long time in politics but a few minutes is a long time in politics these days. Who is going to be foolish enough to predict the future?” Dorries said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Despite some Tory members pushing for him to feature on the leadership ballot paper, Dorries said she had been explicitly told by Johnson within the last few days: “Tell them to stop, it’s not right”
She also played down the suggestion Johnson would serve in cabinet after he stands down in five weeks, and described a report in the Daily Mirror that he was seeking a safer seat in parliament as “100% nuclear-grade tosh”.
Victoria Atkins, a former Home Office minister who quit as part of the wave of resignations that toppled Johnson, said the reason a leadership contest was being held was because of the conduct of the prime minister and those around him.
“I don’t think we can pretend otherwise, nor should we pretend otherwise,” she told Sky News.
Atkins, who is supporting Sunak, said she did not agree with Dorries’s comments about a coup, but said – with a smile – that her colleague had “a very exuberant range of language”.