Theresa May played her final card tonight telling Tory MPs that she will quit if they back her Brexit deal.
The emotional Prime Minister told a packed meeting she will quit before the next stage of talks – but only if her twice-defeated divorce plan passes at the third attempt. She had been under intense pressure to stand down to allow a new Tory leader to take Brexit talks in a fresh direction. Almost immediately leading Brexiteer Boris Johnson announced that he would now back the PM’s plan. But, with the hardline DUP and dozens of Tory eurosceptics standing firm the chances of her ‘meaningful vote’ passing looked remote.
With MPs failing to agree a majority on any alternative option, the Government was gearing up for a long delay to Brexit with just two weeks to go until the extension deadline. But, Downing Street was clinging to the hope that her momentous decision could smooth the way for her plan to finally pass this week. Senior Tory sources suggested the party would kick off a leadership contest on May 22, with the new PM in place by mid-July. No 10 insiders suggested if it did not go through she would not feel able to resign amid the chaos that would inevitably follow. “It’s hard to see how we could have time for a leadership contest in quite the same way if we’re still in the middle of trying to take us out,” one said.
Mrs May faces an immense uphill battle after the DUP confirmed it would vote against the divorce deal, with party leader Arlene Foster saying it “poses a threat to the integrity” of the UK. Arlene Foster said the DUP cannot support the PM’s deal
A hardcore group of more than 30 Tory eurosceptics were also holding out. And she needs to win over Labour MPs with Leave seats who are anxious that if they back the deal they could end up with a Brexiteer PM. They want her to promise a formal role for Parliament in setting a negotiating mandate for the next stage of talks with Brussels. It remains unclear whether the Speaker will even allow the PM to bring her plan back for a third time.
The chances of a general election increased dramatically after Mrs May’s announcement. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “A change of Government can’t be a Tory stitch-up, the people must decide.” Tory heavyweights immediately started jostling for position – with about a dozen expected to throw their hats in the ring.
Environment secretary Michael Gove emerged as the early favourite as a unity candidate between Brexiteer and Remainer wings of the party. But, he may be hard pressed to persuade colleagues he is trustworthy, after stabbing his former ally Mr Johnson in the back last time, and is still trying to shed his toxic image after being demoted by David Cameron. Mr Johnson has long been planning a comeback after dropping out of the 2016 race but could struggle to win over MPs in the first round of the leadership contest who regard him self-serving. However, he is popular with the public and is generally regarded as having an electoral stardust many of his colleagues lack.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is the PM’s favoured successor as she is understood to believe he will deliver on her Brexit vision – an endorsement that may not be entirely helpful. Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss and Health Secretary Matt Hancock are all expected to have a shot. Mrs May is the fourth Tory PM after Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron to be forced out by the Tory civil war over Europe. There are plans for her to have one last big trip to the G20 summit at the end of June in Japan if her deal passes.
In a packed room in the House of Commons, she told MPs: “I have heard very clearly the mood of the Parliamentary party. “I know there is a desire for a new approach – and new leadership – in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations – and I won’t stand in the way of that.” Tory sources said an emotional Mrs May had accepted that she had mistakes. She told them: “I know I don’t hang around in the bars, I know I don’t gossip in the tea rooms, but that doesn’t mean your concerns haven’t been heard.” As MPs spilled out of the room, they rallied around the PM and insisted she had acted in the national interest. Several confirmed they would now back the deal as a result of her announcement.
Scots Secretary David Mundell added: “She believes in the national interest that a change of leadership is required for the next stage of negotiations.” Mr Johnson, chased down the corridor, would only say: “The PM spoke very well and was very warmly received.” Minutes later he told a meeting of the Brexiteer European Research Group of Tory MPs that he was “reluctantly” backing the deal. The top Brexiteer had previously accused the PM of “wrapping a suicide vest” around the British constituntion and “handed the detonator” to Brussels with her deal. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg also said they would fall in line. But, hardline eurosceptic Steve Baker told the ERG he was consumed by “ferocious rage” and could resign the Tory whip. One ERG source said that he was hugged by Mr Rees-Mogg and senior Brexiteers. “We are not a hugging group,” they added.
Mrs May’s announcement is the latest dramatic twist in a three-year saga but, it still remains unclear how, or even if, the UK will leave. EU sources were pessimistic about the chances of the Government being able to strike a path through the crisis. Several warned that a No Deal Brexit was looking much more likely. MPs voting on eight alternative Brexit options failed, as expected, to achieve a majority on any of those on the table. The result made a long extension, a general election and No Deal all more likely.The most popular options were a second referendum, which 268 MPs voted for, and a UK-wide customs union, which 264 MPs supported. Both had more support than Mrs May’s own deal, which just 242 MPs backed at the second attempt. With the Brexit process thrown into yet more confusion, MPs will have another chance to vote on the same options on Monday. After the vote, Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay urged MPs to fall in behind the PM’s plan. “There are no guarantees about where this process will end,” he said.