Theresa May ‘on the brink’ as 40 Tories say she must go

Prime Minister is being ‘held hostage’ by cabinet heavyweights and EU negotiators

Theresa May is being 'held hostage' by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove
The PM is being 'held hostage' by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove
(Image credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Forty Conservative MPs have reportedly agreed to sign a letter of no confidence in Theresa May if she fails to begin post-Brexit trade talks with the EU before the new year.

The report provoked claims that the Prime Minister is being held “held hostage” by prominent pro-Brexit members of her cabinet, as well as by EU negotiators who have set a two-week deadline to agree the Brexit divorce bill.

The Sunday Times, which revealed the latest Tory rebellion, says an embattled May is facing “a fight on three fronts” following another week of turmoil in which Priti Patel become the second cabinet minister to resign, while two other cabinet ministers — Damian Green and Boris Johnson — faced pressure to quit.

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A total of 48 signatures are needed to trigger a party leadership contest.

Sky News said there had been a “mixed reaction” from prominent Tory MPs as to whether the list of rebels was genuine. One told the broadcaster the 40 figure “doesn’t sound right”, but others said it was “around that number” and “probably is (accurate)”.

Secret memo

Meanwhile, The Mail on Sunday revealed details of a leaked “menacing secret memo to the Prime Minister” from Boris Johnson and the Michael Gove, in which the two Vote Leave figureheads made a series of veiled threats before dictating how May should deliver a hard Brexit.

The pair also tell May that any transition arrangement for Britain’s exit from the EU must end on 30 June 2021, and warn that many departments in Whitehall are lacking “sufficient energy” in preparing for the UK’s future outside the bloc.

“We have heard it argued by some that we cannot start preparations on the basis of ‘no deal’ because that would undermine our obligation of ‘sincere cooperation’ with the EU. If taken seriously, that would leave us over a barrel in 2021,” the letter adds.

Delivered by hand to the PM’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, “the missive constitutes something between an ultimatum, a ransom note and a power grab”, says Matthew Norman in The Independent.

A senior government source told the Mail that the memo represented a “soft coup” and showed May was “their Downing Street hostage”.

Appearing on Andrew Marr’s BBC show, Gove brushed off talk of the letter - but coupled with list of Tory MPs prepared to sign a letter of no confidence in May, “it looks remarkably like an alternative Brexit strategy from a would-be alternative leadership”, says Politico.

Deal or no deal?

The Sunday Times says May now faces a “make or break” month, after senior European officials warned that the talks are entering “crisis mode” since a preliminary deal is unlikely to be reached in December, as was previously hoped, but could instead be postponed until March.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier - who last week gave the UK a two-week deadline to provide greater clarity on the financial settlement it was prepared to offer as part of the divorce deal - told France’s Journal du Dimanche newspaper that the EU had begun drawing up contingency plans for the possible collapse of Britain’s departure talks.

However, speaking to Sky News, Brexit Secretary David Davis laughed when quizzed about the ultimatum, saying the real deadline was in December. He warned the EU not to expect a figure or a formula by which the UK’s obligations would be calculated.

If May fails to gain an agreement from European national leaders to move talks on before Christmas, “it could substantially delay the already tight schedule of negotiations and even destabilise her administration”, says The Independent.

The EU Withdrawal Bill returns to the Commons tomorrow, when Labour MPs are expected to join Tory rebels and vote through a series of amendments that could undermine the Government’s position.

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