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27 March 2019updated 08 Jul 2021 10:16am

Theresa May promises Conservative MPs she will go. But when?

By Patrick Maguire

It’s goodbye from her. Or is it? Theresa May has told Conservative MPs that she will not lead the next phase of Brexit negotiations – and suggested that she would stand down once the Withdrawal Agreement had been passed by the Commons. 

Addressing a packed meeting of the 1922 Committee this evening, the prime minister told her party that she was “prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to secure a smooth and orderly Brexit”. 

“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,” May told MPs.

“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.”

“I know some people are worried that if you vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, I will take that as a mandate to rush on into phase two without the debate we need to have. I won’t – I hear what you are saying. But we need to get the deal through and deliver Brexit.”

The statement came close to offering what a number of leading Brexiteers have publicly set as the price for supporting the prime minister’s Brexit deal – a timetable for her resignation – and the sustained applause that met her speech certainly suggests a substantial number of Conservative MPs – including Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith, who will now back the deal – interpreted it as such. 

It is certainly true that May’s words set a hard deadline for her departure in the event that no long extension to the Article 50 period is required – that is, if MPs pass her Withdrawal Agreement before 12 April. The election for her replacement would begin the day after 22 May, when, should a deal pass, the UK will leave the EU. The timetable would be set by the Conservative Party, which has not had a full contest since 2005.

That could well mean a longer deadline than much of May’s party and indeed her Cabinet would have liked: if the Commons approves a divorce deal in the next month, negotiations on the UK and EU’s future will not begin until the autumn at the very earliest, when the new European Commission is in place.

The way May framed her promise suggests that she has not entirely given up on the sort of departure her allies have sketched out in private since she saw off December’s vote of no confidence in her leadership: a dignified exit at October’s Tory conference. The party’s desire for a long leadership contest – with a full ballot of members and a nationwide campaign – means she might get one, or something as close to it as political reality allows.

But there are still several hurdles that she must overcome if her pledge is to be delivered. May’s entire gambit is predicated on a third meaningful vote taking place – something John Bercow restated his hostility to today. 

Even if it does take place, her pledge alone will not deliver victory – there remains a minority of Conservative MPs who will not, and cannot be convinced to vote for any negotiated Brexit, and as such the prime minister will need to attract more Labour MPs than she has hitherto managed to if she is to both deliver her deal, and deliver the UK from a long extension. Then, of course, there is the DUP, who are still clear that they are not for turning. Even as the likes of Johnson switch, they remain more influential on the thinking of some Eurosceptics than the prime minister herself. 

Unless May manages to convince those key groups, then there is no reason for Conservative MPs to be convinced that her words will translate into the action they would like – or that they will ever be anything more than a vague statement of intent.

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