‘I WON’T lead you into the next election’: PM leaves MPs in tears as she vows to bow out after Brexit in emotional behind-closed door speech before Tory no-confidence vote
- Eurosceptic Tory MPs have succeeded in forcing a no-confidence vote in the PM amid fury at her Brexit deal
- Chair of the Tory 1922 committee Sir Graham Brady confirmed the 48 letters needed have been received
- That has automatically triggered a formal vote of no confidence in her leadership among Conservative MPs
- The dramatic secret ballot is being held between 6 pm and 8 pm tonight with the result announced soon after
- Mrs. May delivered an emotional final plea to MPs admitting she cannot fight the next general election
- If she wins by one vote she is immune from the challenge for 12 months but narrow victory could still be fatal
- If Mrs. May loses she will stay on as Prime Minister while another Conservative Party leader is chosen
- The PM has vowed to fight the challenge with ‘everything I’ve got’ and warned Brexit could be delayed
- Cabinet ministers have rallied behind her warning ‘chaos’ will ensue if the party kicks her out at this point
- Theresa May left MPs in tears tonight as she tried to save her political skin by pledging she won’t try to lead the Tories into the next election.
In an emotional final plea to her backbenchers packed into a Commons committee room, Mrs. May acknowledged widespread unrest with her Brexit strategy.
But she appealed for more time to strike a settlement with the EU that they can support. And some MPs at the behind-closed-doors session wept as she confirmed she will bow out gracefully once that task is complete.
As the crowd sweltered in the stifling heat, Mrs. May is said to have told them in her ‘heart’ she would like to carry on but she recognized that was not the ‘will’ of the party.
The 317 Tories have now started voting in the no-confidence contest, with Mrs. May whisked away to await their verdict.
They will have two hours to secretly cast their ballots before they are counted and the premier learns her fate at around 9 pm.
The contest is being held after hardliners finally secured the 48 letters from MPs needed to trigger the process.
Allies including Chancellor Philip Hammond insisted today that Mrs. May will fight on even if she only wins by one vote.
Around 160 MPs have publicly declared that they will back her so far, putting her seemingly on course to survive – although there is no guarantee they are telling the truth. One senior MP privately admitted their colleagues are the ‘most duplicitous electorate in the history of humankind’.
Mrs. May spent the minutes before the speech engaged in frantic arm-twisting with MPs in her Commons office.
Tory MP Alex Sherbrooke said that some Tory MPs had tears in their eyes as the PM told the room she would not lead the party into the next election.
He said: ‘She basically said it is not her intention to lead the party into the 2022 election.
‘I think she’s at a stage where she is 100 percent committed to delivering Brexit. That’s where her focus is.
‘And her opening remarks were: “I am not going to call a snap election. There is an impasse and we will get through it but I’m not going to call a snap election.”
Asked what the feeling was like in the room when she said she would not lead the party into the 2022 election, he said: ‘Shock. There were a couple of tears in some colleagues eyes.’
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis, who has hinted he could vote against the PM tonight, left the committee room before the end of Mrs. May’s appearance.
As the Conservative Party psychodrama careered towards a climax at Westminster today:
- Labour frontbenchers gleefully seized on the turmoil to demand a general election, with shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner saying the public would put them in power ‘given half a chance’. But the party is still refusing to call a confidence vote in Parliament.
- Tory Remainers condemned the coup bid, with veteran Ken Clarke branding it ‘unhelpful and irresponsible’. Backbencher Heidi Allen said she would also support the PM but became the latest to moot a government of national unity.
- The EU watched with dismay as Mrs. May was thrown into chaos, despite a series of senior figures flatly dismissing her pleas for more concessions on the Irish border backstop during yesterday. No10 aides have admitted there is no prospect of amendments being agreed before a crunch EU summit tomorrow.
- Chancellor Philip Hammond launched a furious assault on Brexit ‘extremists’ trying to undermine the government.
- Trade Secretary Liam Fox made clear the Cabinet will not allow Mrs. May’s deal to be put to Parliament unless there are meaningful concessions on the Irish border backstop.
- Cabinet sources predicted that Mrs. May would win with fewer than 80 MPs voting against her, and limp on as ‘no-one else has a plan’.
- The DUP, which is propping the Tories up in power, stepped up threats by warning that the current policy on Brexit is ‘totally unacceptable’.
- Andrew Griffiths, who was embroiled in a sex-texting scandal, and Charlie Elphicke, who faced harassment claims, had the Tory whip restored today just in time for them to take part in the vote. Tory sources pointed out while the former was intending to vote for the PM, the latter is expected to go against her.
Mrs. May – who has canceled a planned visit to Ireland and a Cabinet meeting this afternoon – can stay on if she wins the confidence ballot by just one vote, and would theoretically be immune from the challenge for another 12 months.
In reality, anything short of a handsome victory will make it almost impossible for her to cling on, with rebels saying she must go if she is opposed by more than 80 MPs.
Allies believe she would have romped home if a contest had been staged last month – but her position has weakened significantly since then.
At a rowdy PMQs earlier, watched by husband Philip from the gallery, Mrs. May warned Brexit will need to be delayed beyond March if she loses and Jeremy Corbyn might end up in power.
She appealed for more time to secure further concessions on the controversial exit package she has thrashed out with the EU.
And crucially, Downing Street sent a signal that she is ready to step down once Brexit is delivered – a concession designed to talk potential waverers off the ledge.
The PM’s spokesman said: ‘She does not believe that this vote today is about who leads the party into the next election.
‘It is about if it is sensible to change leadership during the Brexit negotiation.’
He added: ‘She will serve as long as the party wants her.’
Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the powerful Tory 1922 committee, emerged this morning to announce the threshold of 48 letters had been ‘exceeded’ and Mrs. May was eager to resolve the issue ‘rapidly’.
Rebels were jubilant that they had finally secured the numbers last night after Cabinet minister Owen Paterson joined efforts to oust Mrs. May in the wake of her humiliating decision to drop a Commons vote on her Brexit deal.
Previously veteran Eurosceptics have appeared unwilling to sign up to an all-out revolt, despite deep unhappiness with Mrs. May’s Brexit plans. Sir Bernard Jenkin also revealed this morning that he had sent a letter and would be voting to get the premier out.
Cabinet ministers rallied to try and shore up Mrs. May, with Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Amber Rudd, Penny Mordaunt and Brandon Lewis among those making clear they will be supporting her.
But despite their entreaties, the Tories quickly descended into outright civil war, with David Davis hinting that he might vote against the PM, while her allies accused mutineers of being ‘divisive and disloyal’.
Former Brexit Secretary Mr. Davis refused to say explicitly which way he would vote today but dropped a strong hint that he might go against Mrs. May.
‘I’ll cast my vote this evening in the national interest… that means we must have a reset of negotiations, and a reset that protects the integrity,’ he told reporters.
Senior backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg said the premier’s Brexit plan would ‘bring down the government if carried forward’ and the party ‘will not tolerate it’.
‘Conservatives must now answer whether they wish to draw ever closer to an election under Mrs. May’s leadership. In the national interest, she must go,’ he said.
But defense minister Tobias Ellwood told him on Twitter: ‘You are fuelling blue on blue.
‘A disloyal & divisive characteristic disruptive to both Gov & Party- never rewarded by country we seek to represent.
‘Set your stall – and accept gracefully if you don’t get your way. You are part of a team.’
Another loyalist, Simon Hoare, jibed at Eurosceptics: ‘Were the result to be 52-48 it would be accepted right? Just asking for a friend.’
The drama has thrown the government into turmoil just as Mrs. May is scrambling to wring more concessions out of the EU.
She spent yesterday jetting between capitals, holding talks with Dutch PM Mark Rutte in The Hague, German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, and Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels.
Mrs. May said she was canceling her plan to travel to Ireland for talks with Leo Varadkar after PMQs this afternoon. She had been due to straight on from there to a crucial EU summit in the Belgian capital tomorrow and Friday.
She said: ‘A leadership election would not change the fundamentals of the negotiation or the parliamentary arithmetic.
‘Weeks spent tearing ourselves apart will only create more division just when we should be standing together to serve our country. None of that would be in the national interest.
‘The only people whose interests would be serves are Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.’
The premier said switching leader now would ‘put our country’s future at risk’ and ‘create uncertainty when we can least afford it’.
‘The new leader wouldn’t have time to renegotiate a new Withdrawal Agreement and get the legislation through parliament by March 29, so one of their first acts would have to be extending or rescinding Article 50, delaying or even stopping Brexit when people want us to get on with it.’
Justice Secretary David Gauke said it was ‘vital’ Mrs. May wins and warned Brexit will have to be postponed if she loses. ‘Clearly, there would have to be a delay,’ he said.
Mr. Gauke insisted the reputational damage for the Tories from sending the country into ‘chaos’ would be catastrophic. ‘People would struggle to forgive us if that happens,’ he said.
Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright said: ‘She deserves support but also because the country does not need this distraction right now’.
Chancellor Philip Hammond unloaded on the Brexiteers saying the ballot was an opportunity to ‘flush out the extremists’.
Asked what margin Mrs. May needed to win by, he said: ‘One vote clearly is enough in an election that is first past the post,’ he said.
‘I think what this vote today will do is flush out the extremists who are trying to advance a particular agenda which would really not be in the interests of the British people or the British economy.’
But Dr. Fox, a strong Brexiteer, signaled a note of caution that the PM’s support from ministers is contingent on progress in negotiations with the EU.
‘It is very difficult to support the deal if we don’t get changes to the backstop – I don’t think it will get through (parliament), I am not even sure the cabinet will agree for it to be put to the House of Commons,’ he told the BBC.
There were signs Mrs. May was already bracing for a no-confidence vote last night after she returned to Downing Street, with chief whip Julian Smith seen going into No10.
And confirming the news today, Sir Graham said: ‘In accordance with the rules, a ballot will be held between 1800 and 2000 on Wednesday, December 12.
‘The votes will be counted immediately afterward and an announcement will be made as soon as possible in the evening.’
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘She was very concerned that the matter should be resolved as rapidly as possible.’
Environment Secretary Mr. Gove, who has been touted as a possible leadership contender, tweeted: ‘I am backing the Prime Minister 100 percent – and I urge every Conservative MP to do the same.
‘She is battling hard for our country and no one is better placed to ensure we deliver on the British people’s decision to leave the EU.’
Aid Secretary Ms. Mordaunt, who is known to harbor deep concern about Mrs. May’s Brexit deal, also backed her to stay as leader.
‘The Prime Minister has my full support, not least because she has always done what she firmly believes is in the national interest. Our country needs us all to fight for a good deal and prepare for a no deal scenario. All eyes and hands should be on that task,’ she tweeted.
Another prominent Brexiteer Chris Grayling said: ‘I will be backing Theresa May tonight. At this crucial point, the last thing the country needs is a prolonged and introspective leadership contest.
‘I was one of the first Cabinet ministers to back Brexit. Delivering a deal was never going to be simple.
‘Theresa May is the best person to make sure we actually leave the EU and deliver on the Brexit that I and the people of our great country voted for.’
One MP said pressing ahead with the trips would have worrying echoes of Margaret Thatcher leaving the UK as she faced a leadership challenge in 1990.
In his letter to Sir Graham, published in The Daily Telegraph, Mr. Paterson said the Prime Minister had failed to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, tried to bounce her ministers into supporting her and approached negotiations like a ‘feeble and unworthy’ supplicant.
‘These mistakes have eroded trust in the Government, to the point where I and many others can no longer take the Prime Minister at her word,’ he wrote.
‘She has repeatedly said ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, but it is clear her objective was to secure a deal at any cost.
‘The conclusion is now inescapable that the Prime Minister is the blockage to the wide-ranging free trade agreement offered by (European Council president Donald) Tusk which would be in the best interests of the country and command the support of Parliament.’
The intervention came hours after a former minister warned Brexit is ‘certain to fail’ while she remains party leader.
Steve Baker urged colleagues to be ‘brave’ and send letters to the powerful Conservative 1922 committee that would start the process of evicting the PM.
He also insisted Mrs. May should consider her own position after being forced to postpone a crunch Commons Brexit vote to avoid a humiliating defeat.
There was said to have been a surge in numbers during the day, with Mr. Paterson’s decision apparently swaying wavering MPs.
The Conservative process is separate from a no-confidence vote in Parliament, where MPs of all political stripes take part.
George Freeman, a former Downing Street policy chief, desperately urged MPs yesterday not to send letters to Sir Graham, warning of the damage to party and country.
The former Tory minister pleaded: ‘To any colleagues thinking of signing their letter to Mr. Brady to trigger a leadership election, I beg you not to. The country would never forgive us.’
A leadership contest will throw Brexit as well as the Tories into turmoil. Mrs. May decided earlier this week not to put her deal to a vote, accepting it would be heavily defeated.
She announced she would try to secure fresh concessions on the Irish border backstop and would hold a fresh parliamentary vote by January 21. A challenge would throw that calendar into chaos.
Rivals have been brazenly jostling for position to succeed her in the Tory top job.
Mr. Javid fuelled speculation he could seek to replace Mrs. May by giving an extraordinary interview last night set out his vision for the country.
Boris Johnson also thrust himself into the spotlight by talking about his weight loss.
A Tory former minister said: ‘Things have really shifted in the past week and I think she would lose that vote now.
‘I and others have been holding back from writing letters because of fears she would win a confidence vote, but the mood is shifting among MPs and our members.’
However, Mrs. May’s critics remain divided on who should replace her if they succeed, with Dominic Raab and Esther McVey also often cited as candidates by Brexiteers.
Mr. Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the European Research Group (ERG) bloc of Tory Eurosceptics, have been urging MPs to replace Mrs. May for weeks.
But despite a big push last month they embarrassingly failed to achieve the required level of support for a challenge.