Theresa May was at risk of being ousted as prime minister on Saturday evening, as cabinet ministers discussed replacing her with an interim leader in order to unblock the Brexit process.
After a torrid week in which she alienated MPs, and was humiliated at a key EU summit, Mrs May now faces the prospect of being forced from office just weeks before the UK is due to leave the EU.
George Freeman, a Europhile MP and former chair of Mrs May’s policy board, said on Saturday: “I’m afraid it’s all over for the PM. She’s done her best. But across the country you can see the anger. Everyone feels betrayed. Government’s gridlocked. Trust in democracy collapsing. This can’t go on. We need a new PM who can reach out & build some sort of coalition for a Plan B.”
Daniel Hannan, a Eurosceptic MEP, said: “We won’t begin to get
out of this mess until someone else takes over.” Mrs May has already
been told by Graham Brady, chair of the backbench 1922 committee, that
Tory MPs want her to step down.
David Lidington, the de facto
deputy prime minister, has emerged as the favourite to take over as a
caretaker leader. His supporters argue that he would be able to
negotiate a longer delay to Brexit and oversee a process whereby MPs
vote on different Brexit options. A donnish 62-year old, Mr Lidington is
also seen as unlikely to take part in a subsequent leadership election,
making him more palatable to ambitious peers.
Mail on Sunday reported that Eurosceptic cabinet ministers feared Mr
Lidington would pave the way to a soft Brexit, and so were rallying
around environment secretary Michael Gove.
Yet even Mr Gove, one of the leaders of the official Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, does not have the confidence of Tory Eurosceptic MPs who have voted against Mrs May’s deal. “I’m advised Michael Gove would also go for Customs Union plus single market with Labour votes . . . Next,” said Steve Baker, vice-chair of the hardline European Research Group.
difficulty in agreeing a successor means there is no certainty that Mrs
May will be ousted. She has survived constant speculation about her
future since the June 2017 general election, and, having won a
Conservative party confidence vote last year, cannot be officially
challenged again until December.
The practical obstacles to removing her remain significant. The UK is due to leave the EU on April 12 or, if parliament approves her withdrawal deal, May 22. “Not liking her is easy,” said one minister. “[But] you can’t have a leadership contest in the middle of all this. If she goes, what then within the timeframe?”
Another Tory MP, who wants Mrs May to quit, said the chances were “high” she would still be prime minister in a week’s time, albeit having “announced that she is going and explained when.”
Monday is set to be a crucial day, with an expected cabinet meeting and a vote in parliament where MPs will decide whether to take control of the House of Commons agenda to debate different Brexit options.
On Friday Mrs May suggested that she would not put her Brexit deal to a third vote in parliament, unless it had “sufficient support” among MPs. Defeat in any such vote could prove another trigger for those plotting to replace her.