May’s leadership in the balance after Brexit plan comes under fire

Theresa May’s grip on power appears to be slipping after a backlash over her last-ditch effort to get a Brexit deal through.

Mrs May faced mounting pressure from her own Conservative Party to quit or face being ousted, but the Prime Minister insisted “I believe in what I’m doing”.

Senior Tories on the executive of the backbench 1922 Committee have discussed a possible rule change to allow a fresh bid to oust her.

Julian Smith
Julian Smith

Chief Whip Julian Smith met members of the committee, for just two minutes, as rumours circulated in Westminster about the Prime Minister’s future.

A series of Cabinet ministers have asked for meetings with Mrs May to raise their concerns about the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) which would put the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan into law.

Downing Street sources said it was possible that the PM could meet Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Thursday, but there was no confirmation that an audience would be granted for other ministers with reservations about the plan.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid has asked for a meeting to discuss his concerns about the prospect of a second referendum after Mrs May revealed she would grant MPs a vote on whether the Brexit deal should be put to the public.

Sajid Javid
Sajid Javid

Scottish Secretary David Mundell also has particular concerns because he fears the prospect of another referendum could be “exploited” by the SNP to call for a fresh independence vote.

In a visible sign that Mrs May’s authority is slipping away, Brexit-supporting colleagues in the so-called Pizza Club were absent for the start of Prime Minister’s Questions, with Cabinet ministers including Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom only appearing once the session was well under way.

In the Commons, Mrs May appeared to acknowledge that her premiership was drawing to a close, having already said she will set out a timetable for her departure after the crunch vote on her WAB.

“In time, another prime minister will be standing at this despatch box,” she told MPs.

PMs with shortest time in office
PMs with shortest time in office

“But while I am here, I have a duty to be clear with the House about the facts.

“If we are going to deliver Brexit in this Parliament, we are going to have to pass a Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

“And we will not do so without holding votes on the issues that have divided us the most – that includes votes on customs arrangements and on a second referendum.”

The 1922 Committee’s executive was asked to consider a rule change to allow Mrs May to face another attempt to force her out.

Following the failed bid to oust her in 2018, under the existing rules Mrs May would be safe from another confidence motion until December.

European Research Group chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested it would be “more dignified and more elegant” if Mrs May followed the constitutional convention of quitting because she could not command a Commons majority.

How a Conservative leadership election works
How a Conservative leadership election works

In the Commons, as Mrs May defended her deal in the face of hostility from all sides, arch-Brexiteer Mr Rees-Mogg asked “is she going through the motions or does she really believe in it?”

Mrs May replied: “I don’t think I would have been standing here at the despatch box and be in receipt of some of the comments that I’ve been in receipt of, from colleagues on my own side and across the House, if I didn’t believe in what I was doing.”

The WAB would be published on Friday and Mrs May said backing it would help get the UK out of the EU by the end of July.

“We can bring an end to the months – years – of increasingly bitter argument and division that have both polarised and paralysed our politics,” she said.

But Tories expressed scepticism about whether Mrs May would be able to take the Bill to the Commons.

Tory MP Mark Francois said: “If I were a betting man, I bet £50 for Help for Heroes that the second reading of the WAB will never, ever happen and I invite another colleague, whoever it may be, to take my bet.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the Prime Minister’s offer was “little more than a repackaged version” of her three-times rejected deal.

He told her: “This Government is too weak, too divided to get this country out of the mess that they have created.”

Former Cabinet minister Priti Patel said: “We are seeing the continual betrayal of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave and this will give succour to all those who want to defy democracy.”

Theresa Villiers, another ex-Cabinet minister, said: “This deal is even worse than the last one.

“It has all the downsides of the original deal but it would also lock us even more firmly into the EU’s customs orbit. It is a betrayal and I will not vote for it. It would not deliver Brexit.”