Theresa May’s premiership is hanging by a thread as a high-profile Cabinet minister quit and a growing revolt over Brexit looked set to force the British leader from power.
Andrea Leadsom resigned late on Wednesday, saying she no longer believed the government’s approach will honor the result of the 2016 referendum. May said she was "sorry" Leadsom had quit, while rejecting her reasons for doing so. The premier’s office said she would stay focused on delivering Brexit.
Leadsom and other ministers spent much of Wednesday in private talks plotting to kill May’s last-gasp plan to use a possible second referendum to get her divorce agreement through Parliament. As the pro-Brexit faction within May’s Cabinet discussed how to coordinate their revolt, the most senior rank-and-file members of her Conservative Party held a crisis meeting to weigh up whether to throw her out.
The pound fell as investors braced for the prospect that a pro-Brexit hardliner will succeed May, and could rip Britain out of the European Union with no deal to cushion the blow.
Wednesday was a day when May’s authority appeared visibly to drain away. As she spoke in the Commons, May’s colleagues paid little attention to what she said. Many did not even show up to watch the prime minister set out her "bold" new plan for Brexit.
On Thursday, the UK holds a set of elections for the European Parliament that the premier hoped she’d never have to hold, and her party is bracing for a drubbing.
With May’s time in office drawing to a close, the fate of Brexit looks set to be decided by her successor.
Not What We Agreed
The trigger for the unrest was the prime minister’s announcement on Tuesday of a package of measures aimed at getting her Brexit deal through Parliament. The proposals, which included a temporary customs union and the possibility of a second referendum to ratify the divorce deal, shocked pro-Brexit ministers who complained it wasn’t what they had agreed to in Cabinet.
"I do not believe that we will be a truly sovereign United Kingdom through the deal that is now proposed,” Leadsom wrote in her letter to May. "I have always maintained that a second referendum would be dangerously divisive and I do not support the government willingly facilitating such a concession."
According to people familiar with the matter, there is no chance the Cabinet will now back the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in its current form. Ministers including Environment Secretary Michael Gove, and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay were especially unhappy and believe May must now cancel her plan to put the draft law to a vote in the first week of June.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who’s also concerned about the referendum proposal, asked to meet May, but was rebuffed. Other ministers including Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt also sought meetings.
The irony for May is that those who have been arguing for a second referendum don’t think her offer goes far enough, and so the concession that has cost her support on the Conservative side has also failed to win new backers from the opposition.
Throughout the day, the corridors of Parliament buzzed with intrigue as MPs discussed May’s future. Many Tories, including senior government officials, believe she has just days left before she’s forced to announce her resignation. One official said the situation looked bleak, while another said it felt like the end.
The powerful so-called 1922 Committee of rank-and-file Conservatives, which oversees leadership elections, met in the late afternoon to discuss whether to change the party’s rules to make it easier to oust the premier. Chief Whip Julian Smith met with them but stayed for just two minutes, departing without speaking to the waiting press.
Two people familiar with the situation said the panel decided not to change party rules to allow for an earlier vote of no confidence to get rid of May. Current rules don’t allow Tories to hold a ballot until a year after she survived the last one, in December.
Committee Chairman Graham Brady told reporters he will meet with May on Friday after she campaigns in the European elections on Thursday. Then, he said he’ll meet with the committee executive to discuss next steps. Both The Times and The Daily Mail reported on Thursday that May is expected to announce the timetable for her departure on Friday.
Polling in recent weeks indicates the Tories are set for a humiliating defeat in Thursday’s European vote, falling behind the Brexit Party led by the resurgent figurehead of the 2016 referendum campaign, Nigel Farage, as well as Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Outlining her plans in the Commons earlier, May insisted she had a “duty” to ask Parliament to try to pass the agreement she negotiated with the EU. She promised her Withdrawal Agreement Bill would go to a vote - and that the question of a second referendum will need to be faced.
“While I’m here I have a duty to be clear with the house about the facts. If we’re going to deliver Brexit in this Parliament we’re going to have to pass a Withdrawal Agreement Bill and we’re not going to be able to without holding votes on those issues that have divided us the most,’’ she said.
May has promised Brady that she’ll spell out next month a timetable for her departure, after holding a vote on her Brexit legislation. But the signs are she may not even have that long.