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22 February 2019

The cabinet wants Theresa May out in three months. But it won’t be that simple

Any plan to oust the prime minister has to reckon with two big obstacles: the likelihood of a delay to Brexit, and May’s intransigence.

By Patrick Maguire

Could May be out by May? That’s the wish of a sizeable chunk of the cabinet, who have let it be known via the Guardian and Spectator that they will demand the prime minister’s resignation after the local elections in three months’ time.

The logic behind the move, ministers say, is to allow a new prime minister to lead the next set of Brexit negotiations on the UK’s future trade relationship with Brussels once the terms of divorce are finalised.

There is an obvious political incentive for the cabinet’s Brexiteers and would-be leadership candidates in May leaving sooner rather than later, too: it would allow them to cast the future relationship in their own image.

Even cabinet sources who disagree with the case for the prime minister’s early departure acknowledge that its advocates are probably in a majority. Yet the plan to have a new leader in place by conference is nowhere near as straightforward as they would like.

The most immediate complication is the lack of a Brexit resolution. Though the question of just when May will leave No10 is the subject of persistent speculation among Conservative MPs, consensus and political reality dictates that she remain in post at least until the UK formally leaves.

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The increasing likelihood of an Article 50 extension could push that date beyond the local elections and accordingly make a leadership contest complete with a nationwide campaign and ballot of party members difficult to conclude before the final week of September. May’s disastrous premiership has driven most MPs to believe that an election of multiple rounds is not just inevitable – the field will be initially be very big indeed – but politically imperative. Any move to truncate the timetable is likely to be met with fierce resistance from within Westminster and at the Tory grassroots.

But the bigger problem is the prime minister herself. May won a year’s immunity in December’s confidence ballot of Conservative MPs, and is not one to have her behaviour dictated by unwritten convention when the rules of the game allow her to do otherwise. A delegation of “men in grey suits” demanding her resignation, or a cabinet revolt, is not guaranteed to make the prime minister change course. She has, after all, clung onto office despite haemorrhaging ministers over Brexit.

May’s allies in government insist that the successful passage of a Brexit deal will give her a “bounce” and with it the right to stay in office and pursue her domestic agenda for a limited but not insignificant period of time.

The price of doing so, one loyal minister says, would be setting her departure date at the conference those vying to succeed her would like to be crowned at themselves. Another suggests a mix of the two solutions. “She gets a deal through in some form,” they say, “and then oversees a ‘rejuvenation reshuffle’ that in theory gives a platform for contestants to battle it out for the leadership and brings in new talent. Then conference is either a beauty parade or all about the new leader. The reality is that nobody is yet strong enough to lead.”

But for either the cabinet’s brute defenestration or her admirers’ managed withdrawal to be successful, Theresa May will have to signal her willingness to leave No10 of her own accord. Recent history shows us that that is the one thing she finds most difficult to do.