Tories urge May to oust Karen Bradley in bid to win back DUP
Theresa May is coming under increasing pressure from the DUP and Tory backbench MPs to remove Karen Bradley as Secretary of State.
Westminster sources told the Belfast Telegraph that Mrs Bradley, who is a close friend of the Prime Minister, could be shifted in a cabinet mini-reshuffle in the New Year.
As she fought to save her leadership of the Conservative Party, Mrs May pledged to the backbench 1922 Committee on Wednesday night that she would rebuild relations with the DUP which keeps her minority Government in power.
A group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs and DUP allies believe this cannot happen while Mrs Bradley remains Secretary of State.
There is also speculation about a reshuffle of the whips' office with Government chief whip Julian Smith predicted to be a casualty due to his handling of events in the days preceding the abandoned Brexit deal vote.
A senior DUP source described its relationship with Mrs Bradley as being at "an all-time low" and accused her of briefing against the party.
Mrs Bradley strongly advocated the Prime Minister's Brexit deal to the business community in Northern Ireland at a series of meetings over the past month.
A DUP source said: "It is a matter for the Prime Minister who she appoints as Secretary of State. But Theresa May is well aware that there is zero respect among unionists for Karen Bradley. She is here because she is the Prime Minister's friend and will always be loyal to her. There should be more to holding the job than that.
"I don't think anybody could point to a single significant thing that Karen Bradley has said or done in the year since she's been here. She is totally out of her depth."
Another DUP source said: "Karen Bradley hasn't handled things well. Relations between the DUP and the Secretary of State are at an all-time low.
"The party has serious concerns about the Secretary of State briefing against it at Westminster and locally."
Northern Ireland Office sources last night strongly denied this was the case.
"It is categorically untrue that Karen Bradley ever has or ever would brief against the DUP," a source said.
The DUP insider said that some Tory backbenchers believed Mrs Bradley was an impediment to a "constructive relationship" being rebuilt with Arlene Foster's party.
The source said: "Some of her colleagues at Westminster see Karen Bradley as an obstacle to restoring the good working relationship that the Prime Minister pledged to the 1922 Committee."
As Secretary of State, Mrs Bradley is not responsible for her party's confidence and supply agreement with the DUP and must be balanced in her dealings with all parties.
The Belfast Telegraph understands that the possibility of previous Secretary of State James Brokenshire returning to Northern Ireland was raised in London but such a move was ruled out. Mrs Bradley's approach on legacy issues has made her enemies among right-wing backbench MPs. Mrs Bradley was appointed just 11 months ago amid hopes she would take a more proactive role in restoring devolution than her predecessor.
However, the Secretary of State has drawn criticism from across the political divide for failing to take decisions.
She was ridiculed for admitting in an interview with House magazine - a weekly Westminster publication - in the summer that she hadn't previously realised elections here were contested along sectarian lines. "I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn't understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland," she said.
"I didn't understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland - people who are nationalists don't vote for unionist parties and vice versa.
"So, the parties fight for election within their own community.
"Actually, the unionist parties fight the elections against each other in unionist communities and nationalists in nationalist communities.
"That's a very different world from the world I came from," Mrs Bradley said.