In Depth

Can Brexiteers bring down Theresa May?

Prime minister facing ‘leadership challenge within days’ as Tory MPs plot to oust her

Around 50 Tory MPs met last night to plot how to oust Prime Minister Theresa May over her controversial Chequers plan.

She is facing a potential coup “within days”, claims The Daily Telegraph, with one rebel MP telling the newspaper: “If she won’t chuck Chequers then I’m afraid the party will chuck her.”

But do they have enough support to bring down their leader?

What happened yesterday?

The MPs at the meeting are members of the European Research Group (ERG), an ultra-Eurosceptic body led by Jacob Rees-Mogg. One attendee told the Telegraph: “The mood in the room surprised me. It was open revolt.”

Another told ITV’s Robert Peston that there was “really, really detailed discussion of the mechanics of how best you game the leadership election rules”, with “zero dissent”.

The meeting came hours after Rees-Mogg launched a study by a group of economists who claim that the UK would be better off trading under World Trade Organization terms. The launch of the Economists for Free Trade report, at the Houses of Parliament, was attended by former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, former Brexit secretary David Davis and ex-party leader Iain Duncan Smith.

Why does the ERG want Theresa May out?

May’s proposal for leaving the European Union, dubbed the Chequers plan, has proved divisive for her party, prompting resignations and public demands for her to scrap it.

In his latest attack, Johnson yesterday claimed that the Chequers proposals would expose UK businesses to EU rules without giving Britain a say in how they are devised - making the plan “substantially worse than the status quo”.

How would the rebels topple her?

To oust May, 48 MPs (15% of the total) must submit letters to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, calling for a no confidence vote. According to the Telegraph, 35 letters have already been sent, and a further 13 letters are expected to be submitted before the Conservative Party Conference at the end of the month.

The rebels would then need 159 Tory MPs, more than half of the total in Parliament, to back them in the vote. “If Mrs May lost a confidence vote, she would be forced to resign,” says the newspaper.

Can they do it?

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg believes the ERG would only trigger a leadership contest if they were sure they could beat May with their own candidate. Kuenssberg’s colleague Norman Smith notes that the “leading Tory Brexiteers” - Duncan Smith, Davis and Johnson - were not at the ERG meeting. Even Rees-Mogg was unable to attend, suggesting that the ideas discussed are not set in stone.

Indeed, Rees-Mogg has since insisted: “Theresa May has enormous virtues, she is a fantastically dutiful prime minister and she has my support.”

And despite the fierce words of ERG members last night, sources have told The Times that they are “struggling to persuade colleagues to support their open defiance”.

Some fear a leadership challenge could lead to another election, giving Labour the keys to No. 10. May has previously said she would fight a rebellion and believes she has the backing of enough party members to win.

A number of backbench Brexiteers have distanced themselves from the ERG and are willing to back Chequers if the only alternative is a no-deal Brexit, says The Times. One MP concluded: “I suspect the rebellion will be less than the ERG predicts.”

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