Theresa May has defied a growing coup to oust her from Downing Street amid Tory fury over Brexit referendum that has driven a Cabinet minister to resign.
The prime minister’s time in No.10 was hanging by a thread as a raft of Cabinet ministers demanded changes to her EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
Just a day before European elections that are expected to give the Tories a drubbing at the hands of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, ministers and MPs were in open revolt over May’s bid to win Labour support for her proposals.
Commons leader Andrea Leadsom resigned from the Cabinet, saying she could “no longer believe that our approach will deliver on the referendum result”.
Meanwhile, home secretary Sajid Javid, defence secretary Penny Mordaunt and Scottish secretary David Mundell all requested one-on-one meetings with May to demand she strip the Brexit bill of its controversial clauses on a referendum and UK-EU customs rules.
However, a defiant May turned down requests for meetings and was refusing to budge from a plan to try a fourth time to get her Brexit plans through parliament, early next month.
Under huge pressure, she agreed to meet Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, on Friday to discuss her future.
“I will be meeting with the prime minister on Friday following her campaigning in the European elections tomorrow and following that meeting I will be consulting with the 1922 executive,” he said.
Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, and possibly Javid, are expected to meet May on Thursday to discuss changes to the withdrawal bill.
HuffPost UK has learned that if May refuses to budge next week, she faces a mass resignation of junior ministers next Monday, the day after the European elections results. Several warned the chief whip they would act if the PM forced their hand.
Amid frantic behind-the-scenes attempts to shore up May in office, government sources denied that she would make any public statement on her position on Wednesday night.
Senior Tory grandees on the executive of the backbench 1922 Committee gathered in the Commons but decided not to change party rules to force a fresh vote of confidence in her leadership.
On another day of high drama at Westminster, the chief whip Julian Smith spent just two minutes to tell the backbench committee that May was not quitting that night.
Lead Brexiteer Steve Baker said after the meeting: “People are rather impatient. But equally most colleagues appreciate this is a very difficult time for people on the executive. This is after all the eve of poll in a national election.”
The so-called ‘pizza club’ of Brexiteer cabinet ministers, including Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom and Javid, met privately on Wednesday morning and agreed that May had to pull the Brexit bill to avoid certain defeat.
While they did not specifically discuss ousting May, they understood the implications of their position would mean her departure from No.10 would be hastened.
Allies of Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and other leadership contenders were keen not to be openly plotting against the PM but several MPs said their minds had now been made up to oust May “sooner rather than later”.
One former Cabinet minister said: “She’s just delaying the inevitable now. You saw today how few MPs were in PMQs, her authority has completely gone. She can’t reshuffle or sack anyone, no one listens to what she says.”
In a sign that May’s authority was ebbing away by the minute, the usually loyal MPs Tim Loughton, Andrew Percy and Tom Tugendhat became the latest to demand her resignation.
Foreign affairs committee chairman Tugendhat said: “The moment has come when I’m afraid we need new leadership. It needs to be somebody who voted for Brexit, there are some excellent candidates out there.
“I’m very strongly in favour of a particular individual and I think I’m probably going to end up supporting Michael Gove.”
Loughton, a former campaign manager for Leadsom, revealed he had sent a letter of no confidence in May to the 1922 committee chairman Sir Graham Brady.
“We are going backwards we need a new leader who can assert some authority. I can see now way out of the current impasse on Brexit,” he said.
Percy added to SkyNews: “The decision to countenance a second referendum was for me a step too far. I want the prime minister to go with dignity.”
Earlier, May’s spokesman slapped down suggestions from ministers that May went further in her offer to MPs than what was agreed at cabinet.
“There was a discussion at cabinet, the speech represented the agreed way forward,” he said.
Ministers went through the draft text of the WAB in a cabinet reading room on Wednesday, and several swiftly raised concerns as part of the usual process for combing through legislation.
“In the second referendum all you would expect WAB to state would be that there would be a vote to determine one way or another whether the House wants a second referendum to take place,” a spokesman added.