Theresa May will seek to cling on to power until after Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK despite being forced to withdraw Brexit legislation faced with opposition from her Cabinet.
Downing Street moved to shore up the Prime Minister’s position after an extraordinary coup attempt on the eve of European elections yesterday, naming a new Commons Leader to replace Andrea Leadsom, who resigned from Cabinet on Wednesday night. But as voters went to the polls in an election that the government had maintained would never happen, Mrs May was forced to pull her Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), due to be published today, after senior ministers said they could not support her offer of a Commons vote on holding a second EU referendum.
The Prime Minister will today meet the chairman of the backbench Tory 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, to discuss her position.
The executive of the 1922 is understood to have voted in a secret ballot to change party rules, allowing an immediate leadership challenge and sealed their decision to use it as a threat in case Mrs May refuses to commit to resigning by 10 June.
Senior Downing Street staff were reported to have had their leave today cancelled in case of an announcement from the Prime Minister. But a 1922 source told journalists: “My feeling is that she will stay until 10 June.”
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt insisted the Prime Minister would last for another fortnight until the US president’s visit, saying yesterday: “Theresa May will be there to welcome him and rightly so.”
But Mr Hunt became the first Cabinet minister to tell Mrs May to scrap the WAB altogether after the Brexit legislation was pulled from the Commons schedule.
It was a “step too far” to ask Tory MPs to vote for it when it was clear it could not pass the Commons, he told Theresa May.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid also had a “frank discussion” with the Prime Minister about her Brexit plan.
He is understood to have made clear that he does not believe the government should be “paving the way” for a second referendum.
The government had said the WAB would be published today, and a vote at second reading would take place in the week beginning 3 June.
But the legislation was not announced when the forthcoming Commons agenda was published yesterday, and on the likeliest date for a vote – Friday 7 June – parliament is not currently scheduled to be sitting.
Government whip Mark Spencer, standing in for the ex-Commons Leader Ms Leadsom, told the Commons: “We will update the House on the publication and introduction of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill on our return from the Whitsun recess.”
Mr Spencer indicated that the government did still intend to push for a vote at second reading in the first week of June.
Briefing journalists, Mrs May’s official spokesman said that agreement on the parliamentary schedule in that week had not yet been reached through the “usual channels” – meaning between party whips.
Signalling that she intends to continue despite the immense pressure for her to quit, the Downing Street spokesman added: “The Prime Minister is listening to her colleagues about the bill and will be having further discussions.”
The government also announced that Ms Leadsom was being replaced as Commons Leader by junior Treasury minister Mel Stride.
SNP MP Pete Wishart said withdrawing the WAB “has confirmed beyond any doubt that this Tory government is in a state of paralysis, completely dysfunctional and unable to get on with the day job”.
Mr Wishart added: “This is the final humiliation for Theresa May, who surely cannot remain in office much longer.”
Ahead of her meeting with Sir Graham Brady, 1922 Committee treasurer Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said yesterday: “I want her to give a timetable for when she will go.
“I think this blank denial from Number 10 today may be a smokescreen because she does not want to influence the outcome of the European elections. Maybe she will still quit tomorrow.”
Asked what would happen if the Prime Minister did not announce a resignation date, Sir Geoffrey said: “I think there will be overwhelming pressure for the 22 to change the rules and hold a ballot on confidence in the Prime Minister.”
Scottish Secretary David Mundell, the first Cabinet minister to request a meeting with Mrs May on Wednesday over fears a second EU referendum would be exploited by the SNP, was not expected to meet the Prime Minister after returning to his Borders constituency to vote.
Sir David Evennett became the latest Conservative to demand Mrs May’s resignation. Previously viewed as a loyalist, the Bexleyheath and Crayford MP used election day to insist Mrs May must go.
He tweeted: “Theresa May must now resign. We need a new PM a new Cabinet and a new approach to Brexit.”