MPs would struggle to stop committed Leave PM from pushing through no-deal Brexit

London Letter: Demise of Theresa May leaves Tories facing some hard choices

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May is expected to announce on Friday that she will resign as Conservative leader when MPs return from the Whitsun recess in early June. She would remain as prime minister until a new leader is elected, probably by the end of July. Photograph: Getty Images

Newspapers on Thursday published a blurred image of an apparently tearful Theresa May in a car, mimicking the picture of Margaret Thatcher weeping as she left Downing Street in 1990. But the end of May's premiership has little in common with that of Thatcher, who had been a hugely successful Conservative leader with significant political accomplishments – for better or worse.

May's political demise is a little closer to that of Gordon Brown, who also lasted three dispiriting years as prime minister and was slow to leave after the 2010 election.

"Squatter holed up in Number 10," was the Sun's headline two days after that election, when Brown was still trying to form a government will smaller parties before David Cameron and Nick Clegg agreed a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

Anthony Eden resigned in 1957 on doctor's orders but the decline of his premiership shared much with May's, as his political authority seeped away in full view on the floor of the House of Commons. Like May's, Eden's fall played out to the sound of his cabinet ministers scuttling away from the scene of the crime – in his case the Suez crisis, in hers the Brexit deal.


Downing Street said the prime minister was listening to ministers’ concerns about the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) on Thursday after her government announced that the Bill would not now be published on Friday. But there is no realistic prospect of even a heavily revised version of the Bill coming to a vote under May’s leadership.

Second referendum

Removing the most controversial concession to the Opposition – a vote for MPs on whether to have a second referendum – would diminish further the Bill's chances of attracting Labour votes. And ministers with ambitions to succeed May could not support the Bill while it still includes the other big concession – a vote on staying in a customs union with the EU.

The prime minister is expected to announce on Friday that she will resign as Conservative leader when MPs return from the Whitsun recess in early June. She would remain as prime minister until a new leader is elected, probably by the end of July.

Her successor is likely to promise to seek changes to the withdrawal agreement so that it includes a guarantee that the Northern Ireland backstop will be time-limited and that Britain cannot be trapped within it indefinitely.

The new prime minister’s opening bid to the EU could be something like the Malthouse Compromise or the Brady amendment, which call for the backstop to be replaced by alternative arrangements to keep the Border open.

May’s successor is also likely to rule out seeking a further article 50 extension beyond October 31st and to promise to leave the EU without a deal rather than accept an unchanged withdrawal agreement.

A new research paper from the Institute for Government, Whitehall’s favourite think tank, says it will be difficult for MPs to stop a no-deal Brexit.

Parliament’s most successful attempt to avoid no deal this year was Yvette Cooper’s amendment to a “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal that allowed MPs to take control of the timetable and introduce legislation without the government’s consent.

“But if a new prime minister is set on no deal, then they have no need for further ‘meaningful votes’. That denies MPs an opportunity to vote to take control of the timetable again,” the paper says.

‘Near impossible task’

“It looks like a near impossible task for MPs to stop a prime minister who is determined to leave the EU without a deal. Parliamentary procedure offers no route and the only apparent way to blocking no deal – a vote of no confidence – would be a massive gamble for Tory MPs.”

At a UK in a Changing Europe conference this week, Strathclyde University's John Curtice predicted that MPs would pass a motion of no confidence in the government rather than allow a no-deal Brexit in October. He said any prime minister who pushed for no-deal Brexit would see their government collapse in the autumn and risk a general election with a good chance of producing a Labour-led government.

Labour is unlikely to win a majority, so it would depend on the Scottish National Party or the Liberal Democrats for support, making legislating to leave the EU impossible.