May survives but struggles to win over Brexit rebels

Theresa May fended off a challenge to her leadership on Sunday but struggled to win over some of her most ardent Conservative opponents to her Brexit plans during a tumultuous weekend that raised new questions about whether she can long survive as prime minister.

Mrs May will face a high-stakes meeting of the cabinet on Monday morning, with her party thrown into uproar after ministers discussed replacing her as leader just weeks before the Brexit deadline.

Ahead of a crucial few days for Mrs May’s twice-rejected Brexit deal, the prime minister sought to win the support of leading Eurosceptic critics, including prominent Tory rebels Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who met at her country residence on Chequers for talks on Sunday afternoon. But the meeting failed to produce a breakthrough that would allow her deal to be put to a third vote in parliament.

The prime minister’s spokesperson said the meeting had covered a range of issues, “including whether there is sufficient support in the Commons to bring back a meaningful vote [on Mrs May’s Brexit deal] this week”.

Senior ministers rallied behind her in public appearances on Sunday, with MPs threatened with the prospect of general election if they supported rival plans for a soft Brexit this week when she makes a last effort to save her premiership and her plan for leaving the EU.

David Lidington and Michael Gove © AFP

Possible successors — including the de facto deputy prime minister David Lidington and the environment secretary Michael Gove — said it was the wrong time to change leader.

Mr Lidington said that he didn’t have “time for plotting” and had been cured of “any lingering shred of ambition” for the top job.

But Mrs May still faces an uphill task to win approval for her Brexit deal, after a week in which she alienated MPs with an aggressive televised address and was sidelined at an EU summit where leaders agreed an extension to Article 50.

MPs will decide on Monday whether to take control of the parliamentary agenda, allowing them to vote on alternative ways forward, such as a soft Brexit or a second referendum, as early as Wednesday. That could force the government to choose between a deal that splits the Conservative party or one that fails to win MPs’ approval.

Chancellor Philip Hammond raised the stakes by saying that another referendum was “a “perfectly coherent proposition” that “deserves to be considered”. His intervention came after a pro-second referendum march on Saturday which organisers said had attracted 1m people. A petition calling for Brexit to be halted had gained more than 5m signatures by Sunday evening.

But Downing Street remains resolutely opposed to a second referendum or a softer Brexit. Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay said that there would be a “constitutional collision” if MPs backed staying in the European customs union or single market against the letter of the 2017 Conservative election manifesto.

In such a scenario “the risk of a general election increases”. said Mr Barclay. That view was endorsed by Downing Street officials, who hope Tory MPs will choose to back the prime minister’s deal if the alternative is an election.

Leading opponents of Mrs May’s deal, including former cabinet ministers Mr Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith, could lose their seats if a vote were called. But members of the Eurosceptic European Research Group sought to face down the prime minister, saying they, too, would prefer an election to implementing a soft Brexit.

The threat of an election could yet backfire on Mrs May. “I don’t think it’s very clever,” said one minister, warning that Labour, which wants an election, would now feel emboldened. Asked whether it could be a bluff by Downing Street, one Tory MP loyal to Mrs May said: “I wish they were that strategic.”

An election would almost certainly require a longer delay to Brexit. Denmark’s prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen told the FT that such an extension could be agreed “if you reconsider your future with Europe.” The UK would also have to take part in European parliamentary elections on May 23.

Additional reporting by Alex Barker in Brussels


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