THERESA May should trigger the leadership contest to replace her, senior Tories have urged as the party braces for humiliation at the European elections.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the European Research Group of Brexiteer Conservatives, said the May 23 contest looked set to be “difficult” and pleaded with disillusioned Tories to stick with the party for the sake of May’s successor.

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Ministerial aide Huw Merriman said the party faced a “mauling” as an opinion poll suggested the Conservatives could slump to fifth place in the contest, which is taking place because Brexit has been delayed.

Another senior Tory MP said colleagues were looking at opinion polls which suggested they would be “toast” under May’s leadership.

The Prime Minister has indicated she will stand down once her Brexit deal gets through, but with significant obstacles to that happening she is under pressure to clarify what she intends to do.

She faces senior Tories on Sir Graham Brady’s powerful 1922 Committee of backbenchers on Thursday, when she will be challenged about the timetable for her departure.

The Prime Minister is safe from another confidence motion until December following last year’s botched coup attempt, but the committee could change its rules to allow another challenge if she fails to convince members of its executive committee to back her position.

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Nigel Evans, executive secretary of the 1922, said he wanted her to fire the starting gun on the contest to choose a new leader.

“I would rather hope that she would say ‘Sir Graham, you might as well start the process, I know it is going to take a few weeks’,” he said.

“And it will, it will take six to eight weeks to get the whole exercise going, but let’s just start it now.”

The National: Nigel Evans, executive secretary of the 1922 committee, said the process of selecting a new Tory leader should begin nowNigel Evans, executive secretary of the 1922 committee, said the process of selecting a new Tory leader should begin now

He condemned the talks with the Labour leader and the prospect of a “Brexit in name only”.

“If she was the chief executive of a private company she would have been shown the door by now,” he said.

“It is absolute contempt for the British people, what is going on.”

A YouGov study for The Times of UK voting intentions put the Tories on just 10% for the Euro-election, behind the Brexit Party on 34%, Labour on 16%, the Liberal Democrats on 15% and the Greens on 11%.

In a General Election, the poll suggested the Tories would be neck and neck with Labour on just 24%, with the Brexit Party on 18% and LibDems on 16%.

Asked whether he expected a Tory humiliation, Evans said: “Humiliation? No, it’s worse than that.

“The opinion polls people are now looking at in the Tea Room are the opinion polls that say ‘never mind the European Union elections, whenever the general happens you are toast’.”

Rees-Mogg hit out at the “complete vacuum of leadership” at Westminster and said May had lost the support of the grassroots in Conservative associations across the country.

“At the moment, nobody is saying anything supportive of the leader or of the leader’s policy and the majority of people in associations I’m addressing – and these are members of the party – tell me they are voting for the Brexit Party.”

On LBC radio Rees-Mogg, whose sister Annunziata is standing for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, called for Conservative voters to show loyalty even if they did not like May.

He said: “I would appeal to their loyalty, to their tradition, and to say that the Conservative Party will get a new leader at some point.”

He added: “We want that new leader to have a base on which he or she can build and if we find that we are getting under 15% of the vote, if we are coming fifth behind the Greens, then it will be harder for that figure to rebuild.”

Chancellor Philip Hammond’s ministerial aide Merriman said he expected a bleak set of results from the European contests, with both pro-EU and Brexit-supporting voters turning against them, telling the BBC: “I think we’ll get an absolute mauling”.

The ConservativeHome website, an influential voice within the party, said the 1922 Committee should be prepared to change its rules to allow a new challenge before the end of the year.