Theresa May received huge cheers and warm words from her backbenchers as she faced the Commons just hours after a confidence vote in her leadership was announced.
Mrs May, who said she would contest the ballot with “everything” she had, was praised for her determination and was urged not to be distracted by “parliamentary parlour games”.
Tory grandee Ken Clarke hit out at his colleagues for calling the vote, labelling it “unhelpful, irrelevant and irresponsible”.
The former Cabinet minister said: “At a time of grave national crisis on an issue that we all agree is hugely important to future generations, can the Prime Minister think of anything more unhelpful, irrelevant and irresponsible than for the Conservative Party to embark on weeks of a Conservative leadership election?”
He received thunderous cheers and waving of order papers by Tory MPs, and the PM responded by saying: “Mr Clarke has raised an important issue.
“I think it is the impact those weeks of that campaign would have on the decision that the House has to take, and the decision that we have to take as a country, in relation to leaving the European Union.
“Because there is no doubt that would go beyond the legislative date of the 21 January, and it would mean that were a new leader to come in one of the first things they would have to do would be to either extend Article 50 or rescind Article 50, and that would mean either delaying or stopping Brexit.”
Tory MP Neil O’Brien (Harborough) later gave his backing to Mrs May, quoting a number of constituents’ letters urging him to support the Prime Minister.
Quoting from one letter he said: “‘The headbangers from all sides and the supine attitude of the Labour Party has meant she’s had an impossible job, but she’s done so well’.
“Does the Prime Minister agree with me that my constituents have got a lot more common sense than the members opposite who want to stop Brexit and fundamentally damage our democracy.”
Mrs May responded: “This can be an occasion when I give a very short answer, yes.”
Fellow Tory Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) urged Mrs May to ignore the “parliamentary parlour games” and focus on Brexit negotiations.