Theresa May told: set a departure date or be forced out
Theresa May is under intense pressure to formally announce a resignation date after one of her most senior backbenchers warned that if she did not do so she would be forced out.
Before a crucial meeting between the prime minister and the 1922 Committee, which represents Tory backbenchers, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said it would be “much more dignified” for May to name a date, rather than oblige the committee to change party rules to oust her.
The Cotswolds MP, who is treasurer of the 1922 Committee, told Sky News that May, who has promised to stand down once her Brexit deal is passed, should instead leave soon.
May is officially safe from a formal challenge by MPs after she won a confidence vote in December; the rules dictate that there must be a delay of a year before another such vote can be held.
But amid growing disquiet at the Brexit impasse and the virtual halt of any government policymaking, the 18-strong executive of the 1922 Committee has been considering whether to change party rules to allow a new challenge.
Last month the executive narrowly voted against a rule change, but it is believed that opinion could switch if May declines to name a date, with the opinions of previous waverers such as Clifton-Brown being particularly important.
He told Sky: “The message is that she has to set a timetable to go or we will change the rules and have a vote of confidence.
“So I think it would be much more dignified if she were to set out her own, fairly tight, timetable to go and allow a leadership contest to take place, but if she does not do that, I think a fairly firm message from the ’22 is that we will have to very seriously consider how we can engineer a vote of confidence.”
Asked when the prime minister should depart, he said: “Personally, the sooner the better, and that’s not being unkind to the prime minister. I just think the longer this goes on, it’s not in the nation’s interests, it’s not in the party’s interests. We’ve got European elections looming. Goodness knows what the results of that will be.
“But I suspect it [May’s departure] will not be until after the European elections, and I suspect she will be very keen to try and introduce the withdrawal agreement bill, probably, it is rumoured, on 5 June.
“I don’t know whether that will go through or not. But, either way, I think she’s got to set out that timetable pretty soon after that.”
The government has said it will put May’s withdrawal agreement to the Commons in the week beginning 3 June, but with Labour, the Democratic Unionist party and large numbers of Tory rebels set to oppose it, the measure appears doomed.
Clifton-Brown said May had erred in the Brexit talks by agreeing with the EU that issues such as the Irish border should be decided before a future trade relationship was discussed.
“I think the genesis of this all started at the beginning of the negotiations,” he said. “If she had been much tougher on the negotiations – instead of allowing the Europeans to set the timetable – if she had said: ‘No, no, no, this is how we are going to do the negotiations, if you don’t like it, we’ll leave without a deal,’ then I think we would be in a much better position now.”