Theresa May is facing growing clamour from within her own party to quit immediately as prime minister, after the collapse of Brexit talks with Labour sounded the death knell for her EU withdrawal plans.
With Tories trailing in fifth place on a humiliating 9 per cent in one poll for next week’s European parliament elections, furious backbenchers predicted certain defeat when the Withdrawal Agreement Bill comes before the Commons in June.
Brexiteers said there was no prospect of Ms May averting a “significant” rebellion by tacking towards them on totemic issues like the Irish backstop and free trade. “There’s nothing she can say,” said one former minister. “No one trusts her any more.”
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Meanwhile, Labour backers of a second referendum demanded that Jeremy Corbyn announce that all other options have now been exhausted and the party will push for a Final Say.
Mr Corbyn dramatically pulled the plug on cross-party talks after more than six weeks, saying they had “gone as far as they can” and the parties had been “unable to bridge important policy gaps”.
Speaking at her first appearance on the Euro election campaign trail, in Bristol, Ms May sought to blame Labour splits over a second referendum for the failure to reach a compromise deal.
“We have not been able to overcome the fact that there isn’t a common position in Labour about whether they want to deliver Brexit or hold a second referendum which could reverse it,” she said.
She vowed to press ahead with tabling the Brexit bill in the week of 3 June.
But senior Leave-supporting backbenchers said she should scrap the legislation and hand over immediately to a new leader.
Nigel Evans urged her to announce she was not waiting three weeks to discuss the timetable for her departure, as agreed with the chair of the influential 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady, but would go “forthwith”.
Asked if the declaration should come within days, the committee’s joint secretary replied: “I would like her to do it now … It’s only right that the new leadership has the opportunity to become established and form a new cabinet prior to us going into the summer recess.”
Former minister David Jones said the PM should recognise that “now is the time that she should stand down”.
“On the Conservative benches, most people now want the PM to step down as quickly as possible,” he told The Independent. “Prolonging this is just wasting time at a time when we don’t have much time to waste.”
There were signs that Ms May could face a rebellion on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill considerably greater than the 34 Tories who helped to defeat her third meaningful vote. Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, whose announcement that he would swing behind the PM in the 29 March vote was influential in encouraging other “switchers”, is understood to be mulling which way to vote.
Boris Johnson, who declared his intention to stand on Thursday, claimed pole position in the race for the succession with a survey for The Times finding he is the preferred leader of 39 per cent of party members, against 13 per cent for Dominic Raab and 9 per cent for Michael Gove.
As cross-party talks foundered on the issue of Labour’s demand for a permanent customs union, it emerged that Ms May made a last-ditch offer of indicative votes to salvage her Brexit plans.
Under the deal – rejected by Labour – MPs would have been able to vote on ruling out a fresh referendum or a no-deal Brexit as well as setting a new withdrawal deadline of 31 July and approving a package of concessions made by the government. The absence of consensus on future customs arrangements was reflected in the offer of a separate series of “elimination motions” on four alternative models.
Labour supporters of a people’s vote called on Mr Corbyn to declare that he has reached the end of the road in pursuing the options set out in last autumn’s conference motion and will throw the party’s weight fully behind a Final Say referendum.
Former cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw said the move could staunch the “haemorrhage” of votes in the European elections, with the most recent polls showing Labour dropping behind Liberal Democrats on just 15 per cent.
“Labour now has nowhere else to go,” Mr Bradshaw told The Independent. “There isn’t an alternative deal or a general election option now, so that means our approach must be another referendum.
“Even at this late stage, a clear statement from Jeremy that our policy is now to support a Final Say public vote might help stop the haemorrhaging of support we are seeing to the Greens and Liberal Democrats in the European elections.”
The Labour leader’s office said he was sticking with the platform set out in the European election manifesto, which keeps the option of a referendum open if Labour’s alternative deal or a general election cannot be secured.
The collapse of talks left only the options of no deal or a second referendum on the table, said Mr Bradshaw. “The only last sliver of hope for [Ms May] is to make clear that her deal is dependent on a second referendum, so we can vote for it,” he said. “If she for once put the national interest ahead of what she sees as her party interest, she would do so. But whether she has got the leadership qualities to do that is open to question.”