Jeremy Hunt urges May to kill off her bill in another blow to PM's authority
The call from one of her most senior cabinet ministers came on the eve of a dramatic showdown which could see Ms May finally concede a date for her departure from Downing Street.
In a high-stakes meeting in her Commons office, the chair of the Tories’ 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady will request an answer to the demand from the party’s “men in grey suits” for clarity over the timetable for a successor to take over.
If she refuses, Sir Graham will open a sealed envelope containing the votes of the committee’s executive on a proposal to permit a ballot of Tory MPs to oust her as early as June 12.
One 1922 source said they expected Mrs May to announce she will stand down on or before June 10, but remain in post until a replacement is elected.
But the source warned there would be "much greater pressure" for her to go immediately if she pushes ahead with the introduction of her EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
Unveiled on Tuesday, the bill sparked fury among Conservative MPs and a revolt in the cabinet over provisions which would deliver a Commons vote on whether to hold a second Brexit referendum.
Its planned publication on Friday was dramatically pulled after the resignation of Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom, who said she was not willing to put forward a piece of legislation with which she fundamentally disagrees.
In a face-to-face meeting with the PM which was described as “not unfriendly”, Mr Hunt made clear that the bill should be dropped, arguing it was “unfair” for the PM to ask loyal MPs to vote for measures which were doomed to defeat.
But neither he nor home secretary Sajid Javid, who also saw Ms May, pressed her to step down.
Mr Hunt said he believed Ms May would still be PM – “and rightly so” - to welcome US President Donald Trump for his state visit to the UK on June 3.
But her standing as PM is expected to take another blow on Sunday night with the declaration of results of Thursday’s European Parliament election, which is expected to reveal the Tories’ worst-ever performance in a national ballot.
Potential contenders for the Tory leadership such as Boris Johnson are thought to want any race concluded by the start of the summer to give a new prime minister time to discuss renegotiating her withdrawal deal with Brussels before the Brexit deadline of October 31.
And cabinet sources were playing down any suggestion that Ms May would hand over to an interim PM such as her effective deputy David Lidington during the succession battle.
In the wake of the resignation of Ms Leadsom, who has made clear she is a candidate in the race to succeed the prime minister, Downing Street indicated that Ms May was seeking to stave off her ejection from Number 10 by allaying the concerns of Cabinet critics.
Her spokesman said the PM was “listening to colleagues’ concerns” – sparking speculation that she still hopes to introduce the bill following next week’s Whitsun break after rewriting the contentious referendum clauses.
Mr Javid is understood to have told the PM in a “frank” discussion in Number 10 that the Government should not be paving the way for a second referendum which could end with the cancellation of Brexit.
He received no promises of change to the legislation, but left with the impression that the PM would look at his concerns.
Meanwhile, defence secretary Penny Mordaunt said she had “given my advice” to Downing Street. The Leave-backing cabinet minister is known to oppose the referendum measures contained in the WAB.
Her predecessor as defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, threw his weight behind the campaign for Brexit figurehead Boris Johnson to replace Ms May as PM.
Mr Williamson, who used his skills as a fixer on Ms May’s behalf in her successful battle for the leadership in 2016 but was sacked by her over alleged leaks, said that Johnson was “the best candidate”.
“The bottom line is that the only person who can deliver Brexit and defeat Labour is Boris Johnson,” he told the Express and Star newspaper.
Theresa May must now resign. We need a new PM a new Cabinet and a new approach to Brexit.— Sir David Evennett MP (@DavidEvennett)May 23, 2019