Theresa May announces plan to step down on day of indicative votes
British PM makes statement as MPs ballot on alternative options to her Brexit deal
The Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, on Wednesday. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
Shortly after 5pm on Wednesday, Theresa May walked into a packed meeting of the 1922 Committee group of backbench Conservative MPs to a short, muted banging of desks. Everyone was expecting her to outline a plan for her departure, but when she started to speak, her voice cracking, a hush fell on the room.
“This has been a testing time for our country and our party. We’re nearly there. We’re almost ready to start a new chapter and build that brighter future. But before we can do that, we have to finish the job in hand. As I say, I don’t tour the bars and engage in the gossip – but I do make time to speak to colleagues, and I have a great team in the whips’ office. I also have two excellent PPSs,” she said.
“And 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 she was aware that some backbenchers were worried that if they voted for her Brexit deal she would take it as a mandate to lead the UK into the next stage of the negotiations with the EU, which would cover the future economic relationship.
“I won’t – I hear what you are saying. But we need to get the deal through and deliver Brexit,” 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.”
The prime minister did not specify a date for her departure, but MPs sketched out the likely timetable, which would see a new leader elected over the summer. Outside the committee room after the meeting, Jacob Rees-Mogg said he understood her to mean that she would step down in May.
“I think it was very clear. She basically said when the withdrawal agreement had been approved and I assume that’s the May 22nd deadline. So I don’t think there was any ambiguity there,” he said.
“There is never any joy or happiness in somebody’s political career coming to an end. There’s always a poignancy about that. And I think the prime minister did it in an amazingly dignified way and that’s right and proper.”
While the prime minister was making her statement, MPs were debating alternatives to her Brexit deal ahead of “indicative votes” on the issue later in the evening.
The government gave its MPs a free vote on the ballots, but Labour whipped in favour of its own motion calling for customs union membership and close alignment with the single market; for a motion calling simply for customs union membership, and for another demanding that any Brexit deal approved by parliament should be put to a referendum. The party also “encouraged” its MPs to vote for a motion calling for membership of the customs union and the single market.
The government attempted to block the debate and the votes, but MPs voted by 331 votes to 287 to take control of the order paper and proceed with indicative voting. Before the start of the debate, speaker John Bercow warned the government that it could not bring its Brexit deal back for another vote this week unless the accord had changed. He added that he would not accept any procedural vote to circumvent his ruling.
Outside the 1922 Committee meeting, many MPs spoke of their sadness and respect for the prime minister after her statement, and some said they were now ready to back her Brexit deal. Boris Johnson told a meeting of the European Research Group (ERG), which is made up of Conservative Brexiteers, that he was now backing the deal.
But Steve Baker, a deputy chairman of the group, said he was “consumed with a ferocious rage” after what he called the pantomime of Mrs May’s statement.
“What is our liberty for if not to govern ourselves? Like all of you I have wrestled with my conscience about what to do,” he said.
“I could tear this place down and bulldoze it into the river. These fools and knaves and cowards are voting on things they don’t even understand. We’ve been put in this place by people whose addiction to power without responsibility has led them to put the choice of no Brexit or this deal. I may yet resign the whip than be part of this.”
One of those at the meeting said that Mr Baker was so emotional that he was hugged by Mr Rees-Mogg and other leading ERG figures, adding: “We are not a hugging group.”