Theresa May has given MPs a ten-day break after European Parliament elections this month, as Downing Street seeks to create a cooling-off period to protect the UK prime minister from the backlash to an expected meltdown in support for her Conservative party.
Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, confirmed on Thursday that MPs would be allowed to take their Whitsun Commons recess on May 23 — the day of the European poll — even if Brexit remains unresolved.
The fact that the elections are going ahead — almost two months after the UK had been scheduled to leave the EU — is itself a humiliation for Mrs May. Tory strategists fear the party’s vote will collapse — the results will be announced on May 26 — intensifying calls for the prime minister to quit. Polls show the Conservatives struggling to maintain third place, as voters defect to the newly founded Brexit party.
Since MPs will not return to the fetid atmosphere of Westminster until June 3, the break may alleviate some of the pressure on Mrs May although Tory anger towards her over her party’s travails is still likely to fill the airwaves.
The bigger question concerns exactly how long the prime minister can hang on for, and the differing motivations of the warring tribes in her increasingly desperate party over the timing of her departure.
While Tory Eurosceptics want Mrs May out in June — almost as soon as the European election results have come out — Remainers want to keep Mrs May in place until a Brexit deal is struck.
It is far from clear that, having reluctantly presided over the delay to the scheduled date of Brexit from March 29 to October 31, Mrs May can postpone her own departure as long.
“The more she hangs on the angrier colleagues are getting,” said one Eurosceptic Tory MP. “It’s more stubbornness than strategy and it’s going to result in nothing short of an electoral disaster.”
But the prime minister’s friends deny that Mrs May is just clinging on to power for the sake of it. “She isn’t playing for time — I’m not sure she’d even be able to do that,” said one. “In her mind she’s determined to deliver Brexit.”
Mrs May’s allies admit that if, by the time of the European elections, she has still failed to pass her unloved Brexit deal, Tory MPs will try to oust her when they return to Westminster 10 days later. “Those are the two critical moments,” said one.
This week Mrs May told Graham Brady, chair of the Tory backbench 1922 committee, that she will make a fourth attempt to pass the Brexit deal ahead of the European elections. If she fails to do so, many Tory MPs will conclude she has run out of time.
At present Downing Street plans to introduce the bill implementing the deal the week of May 20 — just days before the European vote — although it admitted it would only do so in if it reaches a compromise in cross-party talks with the Labour party. No such agreement is in sight.
Labour officials say only limited progress has been made over six weeks of the talks, suggesting that a breakthrough in the next few days is unlikely; negotiators from both sides will not meet again until next week.
“There’s definitely significant work still to do,” Mrs May’s spokesman said.
Some of those close to the Conservative negotiating team admit that Mrs May often seems to cling to any positive signals from the talks with Labour, even when people in the shadow cabinet say they are about to break down.
In a sign of the fragility of the negotiations with Labour, Mrs May on Thursday held talks at her Chequers country residence with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, which to date has steadfastly rejected her deal.
If the talks with Jeremy Corbyn’s party do collapse, the prime minister’s Plan B would be to hold a series of Commons votes to see if any majority can be formed around alternative forms of Brexit. But Labour assent would be needed to ensure the results of any votes were honoured.
Ben Bradley, a Conservative MP, said: “I don’t think there has ever been a plan B after her deal failed. Now I think the only strategy is surviving another week, but that doesn’t solve anything.”
Party activists will hold a non-binding but symbolic vote of no confidence in Mrs May in June, and, with Tory MPs’ mood turning mutinous, Sir Graham’s 1922 executive is considering whether to change party rules to allow a new challenge to Mrs May’s leadership.
Eurosceptics reason that, if Mrs May is forced out in June, it would allow a new Brexiter prime minister to take office in time for the party conference in October, followed by an attempt to negotiate a better Brexit deal. The EU has said the withdrawal agreement is non-negotiable.
Remainers and softer Brexiters fear that a Eurosceptic prime minister — such as Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab — would end up taking Britain down the road towards a no-deal exit, a general election or both. As a result, this wing of the party would prefer Mrs May to stay to see the first phase of Brexit through.
David Gauke, the Europhile justice secretary, said there should be no “rush” to hold a leadership contest, fearing it would be dominated by Brexit rather than wider calculations on who would be best placed to beat Labour.
Philip Hammond, the pro-EU chancellor of the exchequer, said Mrs May’s successor as Tory leader and prime minister should be chosen “as quickly as possible” — but only after her Brexit bill had won parliamentary approval.
Mrs May has promised to resign once the legislation is passed. Mr Hammond told the Evening Standard that she would be “as good as her word”, suggesting that the best way to get rid of Mrs May is simply to vote for her Brexit deal.