Brexit: Theresa May on the brink after MPs try to force her out
Theresa May is clinging on to power after a brazen coup attempt by her party last night on the eve of European elections, culminating in the resignation of the cabinet minister who was due to begin shepherding through vital Brexit legislation today.
Andrea Leadsom quit the government over the Prime Minister’s plan to offer MPs a vote on whether to hold a second EU referendum, telling Mrs May: “I no longer believe that our approach will deliver on the referendum result.”
But despite her premiership appearing to be on the brink of collapse, the Prime Minister survived another day after Conservative MPs failed to force her out, with former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith claiming: “The sofa is up against the door, she’s not leaving.”
As voters were due to cast their ballots today in what is set to be a punishing election for the Conservatives, Mrs May faces a series of difficult meetings with Cabinet ministers, led by Scottish Secretary David Mundell, who are demanding she abandon her offer of a vote on a second EU referendum.
Mrs May could be out of Downing Street by tomorrow, when she is set to meet the chairman of the backbench Tory 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, to discuss her future.
It was unclear last night whether the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), which Ms Leadsom was due to begin the process of introducing in parliament today, will even be published on Friday as planned.
One Conservative MP told The Scotsman: “Everyone can see she’s finished. In any team, when the manager has lost the dressing room, it’s time for them to go or be sacked.”
MPs from all parties dismissed Mrs May’s “bold new deal” on Brexit, set out in a pleading speech on Tuesday afternoon and there were signs that the Prime Minister’s authority had completely evaporated at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, when she entered the House of Commons chamber to near silence from Tory MPs.
In a coordinated attempt to undermine and embarrass Mrs May, leading Brexiteers demanded answers on the government’s rejection of calls for a statute of limitations for alleged crimes committed by British soldiers during their service in Northern Ireland.
The tense exchanges culminated in Tory MP and army veteran Johnny Mercer holding his head in his hands and one of his colleagues interrupting the Prime Minister mid-answer, shouting: “You’re not listening.”
One MP is reported to have signalled to the Commons press gallery that Mrs May’s days were numbered, drawing his finger across his neck in a throat-slitting motion.
Ms Leadsom, who is always present on the front bench for PMQs, came in halfway through, amid speculation that ministers were plotting to remove the Prime Minister.
As she delivered a statement immediately afterwards on her proposed package of measures to win a cross-party majority on the WAB, most Tory MPs filed out, leaving Mrs May addressing a near-empty chamber. The session was cut short because of a lack of interventions.
“In time, another prime minister will be standing at this despatch box,” the Prime Minister told MPs, in an admission that she has at most a few weeks left 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.”
But opening the door to a second EU referendum brought a demand from Mr Mundell for a meeting with the Prime Minister, followed by two leading candidates to succeed Mrs May in the Cabinet, Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid.
Sources close to the Scottish Secretary insisted that the meeting was to voice concerns that the offer of a vote on a second EU referendum would set a precedent that could be “exploited” by the SNP in their search for another independence referendum - a fear also raised yesterday by Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson.
Cabinet ministers are understood to have been outraged when they were shown draft text of Article 36 of the WAB, which sets out a legally binding pathway to a second EU referendum - something which they claim was not agreed at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.
The Scotsman also understands Mr Mundell was told by Scottish Conservative MPs that they would not support the WAB with the referendum commitment included.
However, audiences between the Prime Minister and angry Cabinet ministers were held back until today at the earliest as Downing Street fought off yet another coup attempt by backbench Conservative MP.
At a regular meeting yesterday evening, the executive of the 1922 Committee heard renewed calls for Conservative Party rules to be changed so Mrs May could face an immediate leadership challenge.
The meeting was adjourned in the middle of discussions when members of the executive were summoned by the chief whip, Julian Smith, who said the Prime Minister would meet Mr Brady tomorrow - but would not be resigning.
As the news filtered out that a rule change had been put off for a second time, there was anger at the Prime Minister and the leadership of the 1922, with backbencher Michael Fabricant condemning the “paralysis”.
Mrs Leadsom then dropped the final bombshell of the day, releasing a letter of resignation
without notice that said she no longer believed the UK will be “truly sovereign” after Brexit, and warning a second referendum would be “dangerously divisive”.
She claimed there had been “such a breakdown of government processes that recent Brexit-related legislative proposals have not been properly scrutinised or approved by Cabinet members”.
“I cannot do my duty as Leader of the House tomorrow, to announce a bill with new elements that I fundamentally oppose,” she concluded.