Theresa May will on Thursday face new calls by Conservative party grandees to set a date for her departure, amid signs she is heading for another parliamentary defeat on her Brexit deal.
The prime minister will tell the executive of the 1922 committee of Tory MPs that she needs a few more weeks to pass key Brexit legislation, with Downing Street insisting she was “committed” to holding a crunch vote in early June.
Although defeat is looking likely for Mrs May in the House of Commons and would almost certainly mark the end for her Brexit deal and her premiership, some Tory MPs want her to set a specific date for departing Number 10.
They fear she might attempt to cling on to office, and are concerned that Mrs May could postpone the vote earmarked for the week starting June 3 on the withdrawal agreement bill.
Brexit secretary Steve Barclay admitted on Wednesday that if the bill was rejected by the Commons, the deal struck between Mrs May and Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, would be “dead in that form”.
Should Mrs May refuse to set a date for her departure, the 1922 committee could respond by changing the Tory party’s rules to allow MPs another vote of confidence in her leadership.
Some Tory MPs predict that moment could be reached in mid-June, after 800 senior party activists at the National Conservative Convention hold their own non-binding confidence vote in Mrs May.
Bob Blackman, one member of the 1922 executive, said: “We need a clear timetable from the prime minister as to what point she will be stepping down and we will elect a new leader.”
Many Tory MPs would like to see a party leadership contest take place during August and September to allow a coronation of the new leader at the Conservative conference in the autumn.
Mrs May has said it is “imperative” that Brexit legislation is on the statute book before the Commons summer recess and has promised to leave office once that task is completed.
Some cabinet ministers are convinced that Mrs May will be gone before the summer break, whether or not “her last throw of the dice” — as one minister described her fourth attempt to pass her Brexit deal — is successful.
Labour has so far failed to give any credence to suggestions that it will back Mrs May’s deal, warning that six weeks of cross-party talks on a Brexit compromise have not delivered the results it hoped for.
The opposition party wants more concessions from the government, including on Labour’s proposal for a permanent customs union between the UK and the EU.
John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, told the Financial Times’ Brexit and Beyond conference: “We don’t believe that — on a number of issues — the government has moved sufficiently to persuade our own side it’s worth supporting.
“Even if we could come up with a deal in the next week or so, within weeks you could have a new leader in place and the deal could be ripped up.”
Labour’s demands are ominous for Mrs May, because she already risks losing the support of Eurosceptic Tory MPs who think she has given too much ground, particularly on the customs issue.
Brexiter Conservatives who reluctantly voted for Mrs May’s deal at the third time of asking in March have signalled they will oppose any deal that includes a customs union.
There is also no sign of the Democratic Unionist party, which is meant to prop up the government, diluting its opposition to the deal.
“If the prime minister brings the withdrawal bill to the Commons for a vote, the question will be ‘What has changed?’” said Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader.
Olly Robbins, Mrs May’s Brexit negotiator, held talks in Brussels on Wednesday about the kind of concessions Mrs May was offering to Labour, and possible changes to the political declaration on future relations between the UK and the EU.