Threat of early challenge to May’s position as Tory leader lifted

By Andrew Woodcock, Press Association Political Editor

The threat of a challenge to Theresa May’s position as Conservative leader has been lifted at least until December.

Senior Tory MPs on the executive of the backbench 1922 Committee rejected calls for changes to the party’s rules to allow a no-confidence vote in the Prime Minister in the coming weeks.

But the committee has asked Mrs May for “clarity” on how long she plans to remain PM if her EU Withdrawal Agreement fails.

Chairman Sir Graham Brady told ITV News it would be “surprising” if she replied that she wanted to stay on as late as December this year.

There was no immediate response from Downing Street to the committee’s demand.

Officers of the 1922 executive met in Westminster for the second day running amid growing pressure for the Prime Minister to name the date of her departure.

1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady (Victoria Jones/PA)

They decided there should be no change to the rule which grants a leader a 12-month period of grace following a no-confidence vote during which they cannot be challenged again.

Mrs May saw off a bid to remove her by a margin of 200-117 in a vote of Tory MPs on December 12 2018.

Critics of her handling of Brexit had called for the grace period to be reduced to six months, allowing a second confidence vote in June.

Speaking after a meeting of the full committee at which the executive’s decision was announced to backbench Tories, Sir Graham said he believed that the issue had now been settled for the foreseeable future.

“We have given this subject a very good airing and thorough debate, and reached our determination,” he said. “I don’t think there will be any mood to revisit these matters in the near future.”

Mrs May announced last  month that she would stand down as Conservative leader and Prime Minister once the first phase of the Brexit process has been completed with the ratification of her Withdrawal Agreement.

But the Agreement was then rejected for a third time by the House of Commons and the PM was forced to accept a further extension of the Brexit process until October 31, leading to calls from some MPs for her to name a date for her departure.

One member of the 1922 executive, former deputy speaker Nigel Evans, has called publicly for Mrs May to go “as soon as possible”.

However, other members were reported to have pushed back at Tuesday’s meeting, questioning what a fresh leadership contest at the current time would achieve.

Ahead of Tuesday’s talks,  Sir Graham met privately with Mrs May, when he is reported to have told her MPs want her to announce when she is going.

(PA Graphics)

Following Wednesday’s meeting, the Altrincham and Sale West MP said the two lengthy discussions had seen “very good, full and constructive debates”.

Playing down suggestions of rancour in Tory ranks over the leadership question, he said talks had been conducted “in a friendly and collegiate way and we haven’t come to blows”.

He said that the committee was asking Mrs May for a “timetable and schedule” for her departure in the case that her Withdrawal Agreement fails to secure parliamentary approval. But he did not make clear whether this should involve announcing a specific date when she plans to leave.

“We determined there should not be a rule change to remove the 12-month period of grace during which a second confidence vote cannot be held,” said Sir Graham.

“We further determined that we should remind colleagues that it is always available to them to write to me as chairman of the 1922 Committee raising concerns or setting out their thoughts – including concerns about the leadership of the party – and that the strength of opinion would be communicated by me to the leader of the party should they decide to do so.

“Thirdly, we determined that following the Prime Minister’s decision a few weeks ago to set out a clear schedule for departure as leader of the party in the event of the Withdrawal Agreement being passed, we would seek similar clarity from her in other circumstances.”

One senior Tory said that a succession of MPs at Wednesday’s full committee meeting had called for an end to “squabbling” during the ongoing campaign for local elections on May 2.

(PA Graphics)

Many Conservatives fear the Tories will suffer heavy losses to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party if – as now seems likely – the UK is forced to go ahead with voting in the European elections on May 23.

Among the candidates for Mr Farage’s new outfit will be former shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe, who is to stand for the chance to be MEP for the South-West of England.

Miss Widdecombe, who was Tory MP for Maidstone from 1987 to 2010 and served as a minister in John Major’s administration from 1990-97, was expelled from the party as a result.

Nigel Farage with former Tory minister Ann Widdecombe, who has defected from the Conservatives to stand in the European elections for the Brexit Party (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Welcoming her to the Brexit Party, Mr Farage said: “I think she’s doing a brave thing, and she’s doing the right thing, and she’s doing it for, I think, the most important principle in terms of what we are as a country, certainly in our lifetimes and probably for centuries in many ways.

“This is about how the world views us. Are we a democracy? Do we have a bond of trust between the people and Parliament? So, this really matters.”

Miss Widdecombe said: “I believe that we will certainly be huge winners in the Euro elections. We will grow from there if Parliament doesn’t listen, doesn’t deliver, we will then grow.”

Meanwhile, cross-party talks between the Government and Labour aimed at forging a common way forward continued, with Chancellor Philip Hammond meeting his Labour counterpart John McDonnell.