London, United Kingdom – The political survival of Prime Minister Theresa May was hanging by a thread on Thursday after she was forced to abandon plans to publish a bill formalising the country’s withdrawal from the European Union.
The Brexit bill was set to be published on Friday and would have represented her fourth attempt to get her deeply unpopular divorce deal through a divided Parliament.
But concessions to lure opposition MPs provoked a ferocious backlash in her Conservative Party.
The bill has become intimately linked to her survival, with calls for her to resign at fever pitch as she prepares on Friday to meet her party’s kingmakers – and attention now focuses on the scale of the Conservatives’ drubbing in Thursday’s European Parliament elections.
Downing Street says the EU exit bill will now be published in early June, although massive opposition to it across Parliament means it could be abandoned completely.
The bill has brought anger at May’s Brexit approach to a head because it was accompanied by concessions to the opposition Labour Party following talks with its leadership – not least the promise of a vote in Parliament on whether to hold a second Brexit referendum.
Maddy Thimont Jack, a researcher at the Institute for Government in London, said: “A lot of people in the Conservative Party were already hostile to the fact that she was holding cross-party talks in the first place – and then to see the outcome end up with commitments in the bill that they were opposed to was a step too far.”
May does not have to resign - she won a previous confidence vote and Conservative rules mean a new one can’t be held until next year – but if she signals that she is determined to struggle on in Friday’s talks with the 1922 Committee, its executive is under pressure to change the rules.
Dr David Jeffery, a Lecturer in British politics at the University of Liverpool who has studied the Conservative Party, said: “The party is not really cut out to deal with this kind of thing – a leader in a position such as May normally resigns gracefully and moves on based on a kind of gentleman’s agreement.
“May seems to have completely jettisoned that, and every day she remains is now damaging the party’s brand.”
If she were to resign as party leader, the 1922 Committee will then hold several rounds of voting among Conservative MPs to whittle down the candidates until there are just two, whereby the choice would then be put to the party’s dwindling membership.
However, if MPs decide to rally around and anoint one candidate, the UK could have a new prime minister within weeks.
A proxy leadership contest has been under way for some time, but the frontrunners are led by the brash and often divisive Boris Johnson.
Although he is the darling of hardline Brexiteers, he has been cosying up to a new “One Nation” caucus within the party that favours some kind of deal with the EU – a sign of the political shape-shifting that has defined his career.
Johnson’s fans say he is the only politician who can take on the Conservatives’ arch enemy Nigel Farage – leader of the new Brexit Party that is eating into Conservative support.
Jeffery said the two clear frontrunners now are Johnson and former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, although his own research indicates considerable support for defence secretary Penny Mordaunt.
Fear of Farage will certainly influence the decision of MPs when it comes to choosing.
Jeffery said: “One of the things that other MPs voting for them will be thinking is: who’s best to stem the tide of Farage and bring those voters home?”
Thimont Jack said: “At this stage, we know that the party is so divided they really don’t agree on what they want from Brexit so I think the idea that they will rally round one person does seem at this stage unlikely.
“But also they might recognise the fact that time is running out and having to go for a long drawn out process really does put the UK on the back foot in terms of Brexit.
“So, there will be conversations going on at the moment about whether there is someone who can come forward as a unity candidate to unite both sides.”
Even if May were to resign on Friday or soon after next week’s recess she would remain acting PM until a new party leader is chosen – and there is no guarantee that her successor will immediately call an election.
If Johnson were to assume the leadership and call an election, Jeffery says that despite his divisive nature, Johnson would have a realistic chance of winning largely because his main opponent, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, remains unpopular.
“If he does get a sudden boost after a winning a leadership contest he will be very tempted to go to the country because, unlike May, Boris Johnson would not be an unknown quantity.”
Whoever takes over from May will inherit the problem of resolving Brexit – and neither the parliamentary arithmetic nor the position of the EU will have changed.
A major consideration at the back of a new leader’s mind will be Farage, and what the upstart decides to do next based on his assessment of whether Brexit has been delivered.
Jeffery said: “If the Conservatives drag out Brexit they will continue to be punished for it, especially if Farage decides that his strategy is to destroy them – and then they should be very worried.”