In Depth

Why Theresa May is clinging on amid ‘open warfare’

The Conservative party is in meltdown as Andrea Leadsom resigns on the eve of European elections

Theresa May came under newly intensified pressure last night, as senior minister and leadership contender Andrea Leadsom resigned from the cabinet, saying she could no longer support the prime minister’s final Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

Pathways to the successful passage of May’s final Brexit deal have dwindled, and consensus is emerging that this, finally, is the end of the road for the besieged PM.

Leadsom’s role as leader of the House of Commons means it was her duty today to announce details of May’s new deal. In yesterday’s letter of resignation she concluded: “I considered carefully the timing of this decision, but I cannot fulfil my duty as leader of the House tomorrow, to announce a bill with new elements that I fundamentally oppose.”

May’s ten-point revised deal contained concessions to Labour backbenchers in an attempt to circumvent dead-end negotiations with their leadership and build a parliamentary majority. Among them was a promise to allow Parliament a vote on a second referendum.

In the end, the changes looked likely to lose more support than they gained. “At least 23 Tories who backed the deal last time said they were unlikely to support her revised ‘ten-point offer’”, The Guardian found.

Leadsom’s resignation prompted “swathes of fellow MPs to demand Mrs May quit even earlier than planned”, says Sky News. “And it was open warfare during PMQs as an isolated Mrs May, stood among empty seats on her backbenches and her front bench, was challenged angrily by her own side over several issues.”

It is no coincidence that Wednesday’s tumult comes on the eve of the European elections - a vote that is expected to hurt the Conservatives more than any other party. If they do come fifth, as some polls suggest, calls for May’s resignation will grow ever louder.

The Financial Times tells how “Mrs May refused to meet home secretary Sajid Javid, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and Scotland secretary David Mundell... The three ministers were expected to ask her to remove the prospect of a second Brexit referendum from the withdrawal agreement bill. ‘She’s not playing by the rules any more. It is incredible how she just avoided the cabinet acting against her by just not meeting them,’ said one senior Tory.”

May’s Conservatives know they face an existential threat. “On Wednesday, members of the Conservatives' backbench 1922 Committee held a secret ballot on whether to change party rules, to allow the prime minister to face a vote of no confidence immediately,” the BBC reports. “The results, in sealed envelopes, will be opened if Mrs May does not agree to stand down by 10 June.”

The Independent quotes the former leader Iain Duncan Smith, himself forced out in 2003, saying: “The sofa is up against the door. She’s not leaving.”

Others suggest she might hand her notice in on Friday, but why has she continually refused to step down?

May’s recalcitrance on the issue of her resignation comes as no surprise to Andrew Lilico in The Daily Telegraph, who writes that “any other prime minister would have resigned by now, but she is determined to try and pass her deal on the fourth attempt - because in her mind it is the only way to secure the two things she considers vital: control of immigration and an unchanged security situation in Northern Ireland.”

He reflects that the issue is not just May, but the party as a whole. “Two-hundred Conservative MPs chose to keep her as Prime Minister solely for the purpose of cancelling or indefinitely postponing leaving the EU rather than accepting No Deal. That was what the Conservative Party wanted; that’s why it kept her… So what must end here, to end this situation, is not merely Theresa May’s premiership. It is the Conservative Party. That process will start decisively in the European elections vote.”

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