Theresa May has gambled her premiership on a last gasp attempt to win support for her Brexit deal, telling an emotional meeting with Tory MPs that she will quit in the summer if they vote for her plan to take Britain out of the EU.
Mrs May hopes to make a third attempt to pass her Brexit deal on Friday but there were strong signs her dramatic move had failed to sway enough hardline Eurosceptics and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party.
The DUP, whose votes give Mrs May her majority in parliament, said last night that her Brexit deal posed “an unacceptable threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom” because it could impose new barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
“We will not be supporting the government if they table a fresh meaningful vote,” the party said. Its parliamentary leader Nigel Dodds said its 10 MPs would vote against the deal.
Mrs May made the offer to step down in the next few months at a meeting of backbench Conservative MPs at Westminster, after senior Tories said that setting a timetable for her departure was a pre-requisite of winning support for her deal.
“I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party,” she told MPs, with allies suggesting she could leave Downing Street before the summer break.
Mrs May acknowledged that Tory Eurosceptics did not trust her to oversee a second phase of Brexit negotiations and want the chance to install a “true believer” in Number 10 to conduct trade talks with Brussels.
“I know some people are worried that if you vote for the withdrawal agreement, I will take that as a mandate to rush into phase two without the debate we need to have. I won’t — I hear what you are saying”, Mrs May said.
Some MPs were said to be close to tears at the meeting, but any sympathy for Mrs May quickly turned into hard calculation of whether her move would be enough to get her Brexit deal over the line.
Boris Johnson, former foreign secretary, on Wednesday night confirmed he would support Mrs May’s deal, joining at least 15 other Eurosceptic “switchers” in the past 24 hours, including European Research Group head Jacob Rees-Mogg.
ERG sources said that between 15-30 ERG members would not back the deal and Steve Baker, a former Brexit minister, was hugged by colleagues at a meeting of the faction after a highly emotional speech.
Referring to Mrs May’s offer to resign, he said: “I’m consumed with a ferocious rage after that pantomime”. Referring to those backing the deal, he added: “These fools and knaves and cowards are voting on things they don’t understand.”
With the ERG split and the DUP opposed, Mrs May stands little chance of victory in a new vote; the prime minister lost the second vote on her deal by 149 votes.
In her address to Tory backbenchers, Mrs May indicated that if her exit deal was approved by the Commons, she would stay on as prime minister to oversee Britain’s departure from the EU, securing Brexit would then become her political legacy.
“I ask everyone in this room to back the deal so we can complete our historic duty — to deliver on the decision of the British people and leave the European Union with a smooth and orderly exit,” she said.
If the deal is approved this week, the EU has agreed to set a new exit date of May 22. Mrs May would only remain as prime minister to oversee the passing of the withdrawal agreement bill, which would put Brexit into law.
However, her aides told Tory MPs that if Eurosceptic MPs continued to block her deal she would stay on in Downing Street. “You can only have new leadership for the second phase of Brexit if you’ve completed the first phase,” said one.
Her resignation as leader would then spark a leadership contest that threatens to split the Tory party along European lines again, as candidates jostle over the terms they would seek with Brussels on a future relationship.
Michael Gove, environment secretary, Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary, and Sajid Javid, home secretary, have joined Mr Johnson among the frontrunners of what is expected to be a crowded field jostling for Mrs May’s crown.
Mrs May’s address took place as MPs debated alternatives to her Brexit deal, after a cross-party group took control of the parliamentary agenda on Wednesday in order to hold a series of indicative votes.