Theresa May has signalled to Tory MPs that she will quit Downing Street once the UK has formally quit the European Union, in a dramatic last-ditch attempt to secure support for her deal.
Speaking to backbenchers in a packed room in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon, May said she would step down as prime minister “in the second phase” of talks with Brussels.
The PM did not give a precise date for her departure, but MPs believe a new premier could be in No.10 by July.
May could now step aside as Tory leader as early as May 22, if the UK formally quits the EU on that date, yet remain as premier while her party picked a replacement over the summer.
Paying tribute to her staff and her whips, May said she accepted it was time for “new leadership” once her ‘divorce deal’ was passed by Parliament.
Speaking with a “crack in her voice”, according to one MP, her announcement was aimed at unlocking the vital support needed from key figures such as Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith.
“I don’t go around the bars gossiping with colleagues. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t heard the message,” she told the backbench 1922 Committee.
May told MPs that recent months has been a “testing time for our country and our party”, and said “we’re almost ready to start a new chapter and build that brighter future.”
“I have heard very clearly the mood of the parliamentary party. I know there is a desire for a new approach – and new leadership – in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations – and I won’t stand in the way of that,” she said.
“I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party.
“I ask everyone in this room to back the deal so we can complete our historic duty – to deliver on the decision of the British people and leave the European Union with a smooth and orderly exit.”
Afterwards, Tory MP Simon Hart said May gave a “passionate” defence of her Brexit deal. But he pointed out how welcome her words were: “She was not in tears - and neither was the Chief Whip.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, who chairs the European Research Group of Brexiteers, welcomed May’s announcement of her resignation plan, adding “I assume that was by the 22 May deadline.”
In the meeting, the prime minister also signalled that the House of Commons would now sit on Friday, and offered a strong hint she would then ask MPs to vote on it for a third time.
If the DUP come on board, as well as Tory Brexiteers, allies think she has a fighting chance of getting the much-criticised deal through Parliament.
But one minister told HuffPost that May’s pledge to step aside was “very much conditional”. “She only goes if he deal is passed.” A former Cabinet minister added: “She didn’t give a date.”
In December, after a third of her MPs voted to oust her, the PM told her party that she would not lead them into the next general election.
But since then she has come under intense pressure from Brexiteers to give more clarity over whether she would not remain in No.10 for the ‘next phase’ of talks with Brussels on a future UK-EU trade deal, after we leave the bloc.
Although a precise resignation date was not a realistic expectation among Tory backbenchers, many wanted a ‘direction of travel’ from May, to clarify she would not be in charge once the formal divorce with the EU had occurred.
Earlier, during prime minister’s question time, May fuelled speculation she would give more information on her intentions.
SNP leader Ian Blackford had accused her of planning to “ride off into the sunset and saddle us with a crisis in the UK and an extreme right-wing Brexiteer coming into Downing Street”.
May refused to deny the accusation, saying only “it is my sense of responsibility and duty that has meant I have kept working to ensure Brexit is delivered”.
On Tuesday, a senior source told HuffPost UK that 1922 committee chairman Sir Graham Brady had communicated to the PM that more “clarity” on her future would be welcomed by backbenchers,