Theresa May confirms she will not lead Tories into 2022 election
Theresa May has confirmed she will not lead the Conservative Party into the next general election.
But she declined to put a date on her departure, and appeared to suggest her promise applies to the next scheduled election in June 2022, leaving a question mark over whether she would stand down if an early vote is called.
Mrs May was speaking a day after she survived an attempt to oust her by rebel Tory MPs, who submitted at least 48 letters of no confidence in her leadership.
Her victory by a margin of 200-117 – and her call for politicians to “come together” in the national interest – did not quell vicious feuding within the party.
Brexiteers led by Jacob Rees-Mogg repeated demands for the Prime Minister to quit as Tory leader, insisting the result showed she had lost the confidence of more than a third of her MPs and a majority of backbenchers.
However, loyalists hit back, with one minister comparing members of the hardline European Research Group to ants surviving a nuclear holocaust.
Arriving at the European Council summit in Brussels, Mrs May was asked to confirm publicly the promise she made behind closed doors to Tory MPs as she sought their support on Wednesday.
She said: “Yes, I have said that in my heart I would love to be able to lead the Conservative Party into the next general election.
“But I think it is right that the party feels that it would prefer to go into that election with a new leader.”
The Prime Minister was pressed over whether her decision means she will step down as soon as the Brexit process is complete.
Her response suggested the promise is linked in her mind to the scheduled vote in three-and-a-half years’ time.
Asked whether she has a date in mind, she said: “No. People try to talk about dates. What I’m clear about is the next general election is in 2022 and I think it’s right that another party leader takes us into that general election.”
Mrs May’s announcement sparked inevitable speculation about a successor, and backbench Tories reported that campaigns are already getting under way on behalf of potential future leaders.
Simon Hart, the leader of the Brexit Delivery Group of Tory backbenchers, said: “I’ve had people I haven’t spoken to in nine years since I was first elected in 2010 using this opportunity to sell their own credentials and engage in a private beauty parade.”
Mrs May’s former policy adviser George Freeman said there is no hope of long-term survival for any Tory leader taking the country through Brexit.
“Whoever leads through this, I think, will be finished by it,” he said.
Prominent former minister Nicky Morgan even suggested the party may split, telling the BBC: “I think there’s an inevitability that some of these people – the hardest Brexiteers – are going to walk.
“There may be some sort of reconfiguration of parties on the right of the UK political spectrum and that may be something we are going to have to accept in order to get a Brexit deal through the House of Commons.”
Staunch Brexiteers were smarting at Chancellor Philip Hammond’s description of them as “extremists” who had been “flushed out” by the confidence vote.
Former party leader Iain Duncan Smith – whose Commons office was reportedly used as an HQ by rebel Tories during Wednesday’s voting – told the Chancellor to “moderate your language”.
He told Radio 4’s Today programme: “I have one simple message for the Chancellor: When you start turning on your own party and making accusations about them, that’s the beginning of the end for your party.”
One of Mr Hammond’s Cabinet colleagues, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, distanced himself from the comment, telling Today: “I think all of us say sometimes things in interviews which we perhaps could have phrased in a better way. It’s not the phraseology I would have used.”
Both Mr Duncan Smith and Mr Rees-Mogg denied reports that the rebels had nicknamed their Commons base for the vote “the kill zone”, with the ERG chair claiming the “deeply disagreeable” moniker was invented by May supporters in the hope of discrediting them.
Mr Rees-Mogg also said it is “not impossible” that, on reflection, Mrs May would decide to stand aside soon.
“You may remember that Margaret Thatcher… said ‘We fight on, we fight to win’,” he said. “Nobody was tougher than Mrs Thatcher and the next day she resigned. So, it’s not impossible.
“I think Theresa May should consider what she said last night. I agree with her that we do want somebody who can unite the country and the Conservative Party, and she has to ask herself is she realistically that person?”
There were appeals for unity and calm from supporters of the Prime Minister.
Business Secretary Greg Clark called on MPs to “move from being critics to being responsible participants”.
Tory deputy chair James Cleverly said: “Some colleagues, perhaps out of frustration (are) saying foolish things about other Conservatives. Now would be a good time to stop.
“Respect the results of the two referendums – 52% to Leave the EU and 63% to support Theresa May.”
Foreign minister Alistair Burt was more blunt: “They never, ever stop. Votes against them, letters going in late – nothing matters to ERG.
“After the apocalypse, all that will be left will be ants and Tory MPs complaining about Europe and their leader.”