Theresa May to set out exit timetable next month

The prime minister has not set a date but has instead formalised the inevitable: her position would always have been untenable by June anyway.

NS

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The Conservative Party is not quite rid of Theresa May yet, but it is now a step closer to knowing exactly when she will go. After the latest in a series of crunch meetings with the executive of the 1922 Committee this afternoon, the prime minister has agreed to set out a timetable for her departure next month. 

Graham Brady, the '22 chairman, told Tory MPs that he would meet May to agree the timing of the election for her successor after the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill - scheduled for the week beginning 3 June. 

Brady wrote:

"The Prime Minister is determined to secure our departure from the European Union and is devoting her efforts to securing the 2nd Reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in the week commencing 3rd June 2019 and the passage of that Bill and the consequent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union by the summer. 

"We have agreed that she and I will meet following the 2nd Reading of the Bill to agree a timetable for the election of a new leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party."

Though the accord falls short of setting a hard deadline for May's exit - the bare minimum plenty of Conservative MPs wanted and expected - the political reality is that introducing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to the Commons was always likely to be the final act of her premiership anyway. 

Without the cooperation of the Labour leadership - which, as several members of the shadow cabinet have made clear in recent days, will not be forthcoming - the Bill was always destined to fail. (In the unlikely event that it passes with the Irish backstop intact, it will mean the withdrawal of DUP support from, and thus the fall of, May's government anyway.)

The number of Eurosceptic rebels on the Conservative benches was squeezed to just 28 when the Commons voted on the Withdrawal Agreement for the third time on 29 March, but Whitehall sources familiar with the bill expect that number to spike once the legislation - which will lay bare the legal reality of withdrawal - is published.

The inevitability of that defeat, and of a crushing defeat on 23 May, always meant that in naming a date for the introduction of the bill, May would also be acknowledging the existence of a deadline after which she could no longer forestall demands for a defined exit timetable. 

That explains why, despite the clamour from the backbenches, Brady and his executive committee did not demand a date from the prime minister today: with a likely dire set of European election results and the fourth defeat of the WAB to come, the prime minister's position was always going to be untenable by early June anyway, as the antics of the crowded field to succeed her attest.

The case for attempting to force the issue now was weak. The case for formalising the inevitable was much stronger: events will force it instead. The only difference? Allowing May some semblance of control or dignity in departing. In either case, there will be the leadehip election May did not want this summer.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.