Former Tory Party chairman Grant Shapps has said he believes Theresa May should face a leadership election.
Mr Shapps told the BBC he had the backing of about 30 MPs, including five former cabinet ministers, adding: “I don’t think we can go on like this.”
There has been leadership speculation since the snap general election, in which the Tories lost their majority.
Cabinet ministers have been rallying around Mrs May since her conference speech was beset by mishaps this week.
It was meant to be a chance to assert her authority over the party after the general election that saw her party lose MPs.
But it was plagued by a series of mishaps, as she struggled with a persistent cough, was interrupted by a prankster and some of the letters fell off the conference stage backdrop behind her.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove was among those publicly defending her on Friday morning, as the story broke that Mr Shapps was the senior Tory behind a bid to persuade Mrs May to go.
Mr Gove told BBC Radio 4 the prime minister was a “fantastic” leader, had widespread support, and should stay “as long as she wants”. He said that the “overwhelming majority of MPs and the entirety of the cabinet” backed the prime minister.
“She has been an excellent prime minister and I hope she carries on as prime minister for years to come,” he said, adding that “refuelling leadership speculation was…one of the most boring stories in politics”.
“overwhelming majority of MPs” support the prime minister, says environment secretary Michael Gove
A total of 48 MPs would need to write to the chairman of the 1922 committee of backbench Tories in order to trigger a leadership contest.
Mr Shapps, who was co-chair of the party between 2012 and 2015, said no letter had been sent and said his intention had been to gather signatures privately and persuade Mrs May to stand down.
But he claimed party whips had taken the “extraordinary” step of making it public by naming him as the ringleader of a plot to oust the PM in a story in the Times.
He told the BBC: “I think it’s time we actually tackle this issue of leadership and so do many colleagues. We wanted to present that to Theresa May privately. Now I’m afraid it’s being done a bit more publicly.”
He added: “The country needs leadership. It needs leadership at this time in particular. I think the conference and the lead up through the summer has shown that that’s not going to happen. I think it’s time that we have a leadership election now, or at least let’s set out that timetable.”
Mr Shapps said the prime minister was a “perfectly decent person” but had “rolled the dice” and lost over her decision to call a snap election, in which the party had surrendered its majority.
“The time has come. You can’t just carry on when things aren’t working. The solution is not to bury heads in the sand,” he told Radio 4.
The list of colleagues covered “a broad spread” including Remainers and Brexiteers, he added.
But Charles Walker, vice chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 committee, told the BBC: “Number Ten must be delighted to learn that it’s Grant Shapps leading this alleged coup.
“Grant has many talents but one thing he doesn’t have is a following in the party. So really I think this is now just going to fizzle out to be perfectly honest.
“What you’re seeing here is probably the coalition of the disappointed people who think that their brilliant political talents have not been fully recognised, and really it doesn’t reflect well on them and it doesn’t reflect, in my view, well on Grant Shapps.”
Former minister Ed Vaizey was the first MP to publicly suggest Mrs May should quit on Thursday, telling the BBC: “I think there will be quite a few people who will now be pretty firmly of the view that she should resign.”
But cabinet ministers have rallied around Mrs May. Home Secretary Amber Rudd has written an article in the Telegraph urging the prime minister to stay, while First Secretary of State Damian Green said on the BBC’s Question Time the prime minister “was determined as ever to get on with her job – she sees it as her duty to do so”.