Fragile May hunkers down to plan Downing Street exit

Theresa May retreated to her home in the Thames-side village of Sonning a broken prime minister on Thursday night, her Brexit deal in tatters. Only one big question remained for her: the manner of her departure from Number 10.

Throughout the day, reports seeped out of Downing Street that staff were being recalled from leave and that Mrs May was in a “fragile state”. Tory MPs and ministers speculated that the prime minister would call it quits on Friday.

Philip May, the prime minister’s principal confidant and adviser, took the day off work to be with his wife. Officially, Mr and Mrs May were canvassing for Tory votes in Berkshire in the elections to the European Parliament. In reality, they were contemplating the end.

The prime minister will return to London on Friday to discuss her future with Graham Brady, chairman of the Tory 1922 committee. Her advisers want her to act decisively and take the initiative. “She can’t look like she is being hounded out,” said one.

The day started with Number 10 in defiant mood, insisting that Mrs May would continue to push her revised Brexit deal in spite of the fact that Tory MPs and the cabinet were in revolt. Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the Commons, had quit.

Mrs May’s team said that she would publish her revised withdrawal agreement bill on Friday and put it to a vote in the Commons in the week beginning June 3. Within hours, the prime minister had abandoned that plan.

The crucial meeting came in the morning when Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary, in effect killed Mrs May’s deal. His intervention removed at a stroke the only reason for the prime minister to continue in office.

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Mr Hunt’s allies said the meeting was “friendly” but the foreign secretary, who aspires to take Mrs May’s crown, told the prime minister that she had to pull the bill. “He said it was clear it wasn’t going to pass,” said one ally.

The foreign secretary had tried to make that point to Mrs May on Wednesday but the prime minister refused to see him. Clearly frustrated, Mr Hunt told Mrs May she was pushing Tory MPs too far in asking them to back a flawed deal.

“He said it was unfair to ask MPs to go through the lobbies to support it,” said the ally of Mr Hunt. The foreign secretary said it was not enough just to rewrite the bill by removing an offending section about a second EU referendum. It had to be stopped.

Sajid Javid, home secretary, also met Mrs May. He did not call for the bill to be abandoned, but said he could not support it as long as the legislation provided for the possibility of a second EU referendum, if a majority of MPs supported it.

Mrs May told her senior colleagues that she was “listening” to the range of views expressed on the bill. She will have heard deafening criticism of her compromise proposal across party lines.

Downing Street was faced with the prospect of rewriting the bill — to try to stop the cabinet revolt — knowing that diluting references to a second referendum would remove any sliver of hope that Labour MPs might support it.

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One Conservative close to Mrs May’s inner circle said: “She has been trying to process what has happened and it hasn’t been easy.” Some worried that the prime minister, normally indefatigable, was finally showing the strain.

Mrs May’s team denied that there were splits in her bunker between those who wanted her to soldier on with her Brexit plan and those who believed that the priority now was to get her and her husband out of Downing Street with their heads held high.

But some inside Number 10, notably communications chief Robbie Gibb, were insisting that Mrs May would press ahead with her Brexit legislation, even when it was clear it was heading for the rocks.

Before she left Downing Street, Mrs May carried out a cabinet reshuffle, promoting Treasury minister Mel Stride to replace Mrs Leadsom, the 36th minister to quit during the prime minister’s reign. “Deckchairs on the Titanic,” muttered one Tory aide.

Mrs May’s return to Berkshire to join European election campaigning brought little relief. A final Ipsos/Mori poll put the Conservatives in fifth place on 9 per cent of the vote, heading for their worst result in a national election in the party’s history.

Ministers, MPs and some of her advisers believe Mrs May will on Friday set out plans for her resignation, rather than let the “hanging on” narrative take hold any further, possibly setting a date for her departure in the week starting June 10.

The expectation in cabinet is that Mrs May would resign as Tory leader while staying on as prime minister in a caretaker capacity until a new leader is appointed, possibly before the summer holidays in late July.

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Others wondered whether Mrs May, exhausted by months of attrition and ultimate failure on Brexit, might quit immediately as prime minister, too. Buckingham Palace said the Queen had no official engagements on Friday.

David Lidington, her de facto deputy, has been mentioned as a possible caretaker prime minister, although he does not expect to be stepping into the breach.

One ally of Mrs May said she wanted to set her resignation date after Donald Trump’s state visit on June 3-5. “Technically she would still be prime minister but it would be humiliating to receive the president of the US as a lame duck PM,” the person said.

But, whenever she finally leaves Downing Street, Mrs May’s premiership is in effect over. On Thursday night in Sonning, the prime minister and her husband made the final decision on how to bring it to an end.


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