Theresa May said a challenge to her leadership would be a distraction from negotiating with the European Union, and that any new prime minister would face the same issues she does, as she urged Parliament to back her Brexit deal as the only offer available.
May is in the midst of the toughest week of her difficult premiership. Her former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, who resigned last week in protest over the deal, accused her of giving in to bullying from the EU. Other Brexiteers are openly campaigning for a vote of confidence in her leadership, but are short of the number needed to start the process. And members of her Cabinet are meeting to discuss the changes they want to her deal.
If the prime minister makes it through, it won’t so much be because anyone in Parliament likes her plan but because the alternatives are viewed as worse – the argument May has made herself. One sign of success for this strategy came when she said that – to the best of her knowledge – the number of Conservative lawmakers challenging her leadership hadn’t yet reached the required threshold to force a vote.
‘Isn’t about me’
“This isn’t about me, it’s about what’s right for the country, and as far I’m concerned we’re not going to be distracted from this important job in this critical week of negotiations,” May told “Sophie Ridge on Sunday” on Sky. “A change of leadership at this point isn’t going to make the negotiations any easier, and it’s not going to change the parliamentary arithmetic. What it will do is bring in a degree of uncertainty.”
The one person who does know how many Tories have written letters demanding a confidence vote – which requires 48 – is the man they write to: Graham Brady, the chairman of the Conservative 1922 Committee. In a BBC radio interview on Sunday, he didn’t sound like someone on the brink of unleashing political chaos.
He joked about trying not to count out loud when he was shopping, for fear of being misunderstood. And he said that while he had his own doubts about what May had negotiated, he didn’t think replacing her would help.
“I have my own views about what is sensible and what isn’t,” Brady said. “Whether a leadership challenge or a confidence vote in the leadership would be helpful to the negotiating process at the moment. I think probably it wouldn’t be. We are coming to the endgame of a very serious, very difficult negotiation.”
He laughed off the “slightly offensive” idea that he might be suppressing letters in order to protect May, and said that if the threshold was reached, he would aim to hold the vote “expeditiously.” So far the number of Tories on record as having submitted letters is 23, though Sunday newspapers reported that others had done so in secret.
Even Raab said that he wouldn’t be submitting a letter. “All of this leadership stuff is a total distraction from the historic moment that we’re at,” he said on the “Andrew Marr Show” on the BBC.
Raab urged the prime minister to prepare to leave the EU without a deal, saying that the long-term benefits would outweigh the short-term costs. “We would face some short-term disruption, but far better that than to put the long-term economic and democratic interests of the country at risk,” he said. But he refused to be drawn on whether the Department of Health had warned that people would die in such a scenario.
May is aiming to head to Brussels this week to take personal charge of the negotiations, which she said would focus on the future relationship with the EU, rather than the withdrawal agreement. The European Commission told envoys from the 27 remaining members on Sunday that there were still disagreements about the security and economic relationship between the two sides.
On another sticking point, the question of when the transition period taking Britain out of the EU could be extended to, the Commission wants to limit it to the end of 2022, according to a diplomat who declined to be named. The EU has warned the UK that extending the transition for a year would cost an extra 10 billion pounds , according to the Observer newspaper.
There remained little prospect on Sunday of May getting her deal through Parliament. Raab said he would vote against it, and opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn once again said it didn’t deliver what the party wants.
Brady told the BBC that it didn’t look like May could win the vote “unless either the agreement changes or the statement of the political declaration for the future relationship gives considerably stronger grounds for optimism about the final nature of the deal.”