May offers to step down once Brexit deal is approved as Johnson signals support

Theresa May has said she will stand down as Prime Minister before the next phase of Brexit negotiations.

The Prime Minister did not name a date for her departure from 10 Downing Street, but her announcement sets the stage for a Conservative leadership election within the coming weeks or months.

Her offer to resign after her Withdrawal Agreement is passed came in response to calls from a number of her backbenchers for her to promise to go in return for their help in pushing the deal through Parliament.

And it appeared the dramatic initiative may be paying dividends, as a close ally of Boris Johnson indicated that the Brexit figurehead may be preparing to swing behind the deal.

Conor Burns said in a tweet: “Boris Johnson absolutely right telling MPs that palpable risk of losing Brexit altogether with the chance of change in the next phase means we have little choice but to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement.”

However, an expected statement from the Democratic Unionist Party failed to materialise, raising questions over whether the Northern Irish party is ready to drop its opposition.

Mr Johnson left a meeting of the European Research Group (ERG) without commenting on his apparent U-turn.

He declined to say whether he still believed Mrs May’s deal wrapped a “suicide vest” around the British constitution, as he claimed in 2018.

Mrs May spoke to the influential Tory 1922 Committee shortly before MPs were due to take part in “indicative votes” on a range of Brexit options in the House of Commons.

She said she “will not stand in the way” of the party having new leadership, telling the 1922 Committee: “I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party.”

One MP who witnessed the address, George Freeman, said that the PM had “tears not far from her eyes” as she admitted: “I have made many mistakes. I am only human. I beg you, colleagues, vote for the Withdrawal Agreement and I will go.”

Mr Freeman, a former policy aide to the PM who had called for her to name a date for her departure, told the BBC: “There was silence in the room and it was incredibly sad.”

Downing Street has signalled that the PM is keeping open the possibility of tabling her Withdrawal Agreement for a third “meaningful vote” on Thursday or Friday, but would do so only if she felt there was a credible chance of it securing a majority.

The deal must be passed by the end of the week if the UK is to benefit from the EU’s offer of an automatic delay to Brexit to May 22.

But Commons Speaker John Bercow infuriated ministers after reminding them of his ruling that there needed to be significant change to the deal if it was to be brought back to the Commons for a third time, after twice being defeated by wide margins.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Mrs May told her 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.

“I know some people are worried that if you vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, I will take that as a mandate to rush on into phase two without the debate we need to have. I won’t – I hear what you are saying.

“But we need to get the deal through and deliver Brexit.”

Mrs May acknowledged that it had been “a testing time” for the party and the country, but said: “We’re nearly there. We’re almost ready to start a new chapter and build that brighter future.

“But before we can do that, we have to finish the job in hand.”

She added: “I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party.

“I ask everyone in this room to back the deal so we can complete our historic duty – to deliver on the decision of the British people and leave the European Union with a smooth and orderly exit.”

Earlier, Mrs May moved to prevent possible ministerial resignations by allowing Conservative MPs a free vote on the indicative votes.

But the Prime Minister herself, along with her Cabinet ministers, will abstain in the “indicative votes”, whips have indicated.

Prime Minister’s Questions
Prime Minister’s Questions

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “Theresa May’s pledge to Tory MPs to stand down if they vote for her deal shows once and for all that her chaotic Brexit negotiations have been about party management, not principles or the public interest.

“A change of government can’t be a Tory stitch-up, the people must decide.”