Britain’s beleaguered prime minister, Theresa May, will face a no-confidence vote on Wednesday within her own Conservative Party, as lawmakers upset with her handling of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union seek to topple her from power.
Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee of Conservative lawmakers, announced Wednesday morning that he had received letters of protest from more than 48 Conservative members of Parliament, the number needed under party rules to trigger a vote on her leadership. He said the contest would take place Wednesday evening.
Mrs. May has been battered from multiple directions by her management of the European Union withdrawal, or Brexit. In particular, many hard-line Brexit supporters within her party believed she was not making a complete enough break with the bloc.
In recent days, she suffered two embarrassing setbacks in Parliament. Last week, the House of Commons voted her government in contempt of Parliament — the first time any prime minister had been censured in that way — for failing to release the advice her government’s lawyers had given on Brexit.
And on Monday, she postponed a vote on the Brexit agreement she had negotiated with the European Union, acknowledging that it stood to be defeated by “a significant margin.” In fact, lawmakers say, views on the topic, which has dominated British politics for nearly three years, are so fragmented that no approach has majority support in Parliament, and probably not among Conservatives, either.
A defiant Mrs. May appeared Wednesday morning outside 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence, to argue that the only beneficiaries of a vote of no confidence would be the opposition Labour Party.
“I will contest that vote with everything I’ve got,” she said.
“A change in leadership in the Conservative Party now will put our country at risk and create uncertainty when we can least afford it,” she added. “Weeks spent tearing ourselves apart would only create more division, when we should be standing together.”
Under the party’s rules Mrs. May needs to win around 158 votes in a secret ballot to remain as party leader and therefore prime minister. If she does so, then party lawmakers cannot mount another challenge to her leadership for a year. If she lost the vote, then the party would choose another leader over the coming weeks, and Mrs. May would not be eligible to compete for the position.
The move comes at a critical time for Brexit, with European Union leaders scheduled to discuss the matter at a meeting on Thursday and Friday. Under current law, Britain is scheduled to leave the bloc on March 29 and if there is no agreement on terms for an orderly withdrawal, it could suffer a chaotic and economically damaging no-deal exit.
The disarray in London undermined the British pound, which has fallen sharply against the dollar and the euro in recent weeks, though it later rebounded as large numbers of Conservative lawmakers publicly affirmed their support for Mrs. May.
In Brussels, diplomats said they could see little benefit from Mrs. May’s travails, and that no new British leader would be able to change the fundamentals of the 585-page divorce agreement negotiated so painfully. The so-called backstop that is meant to guarantee free movement of goods over the Irish border is integral to any deal and cannot be made temporary or subject to unilateral dissolution.
The main fear is that there is no majority in Parliament for any kind of Brexit deal, one diplomat said, like others speaking only anonymously, following diplomatic protocol.
“Even the funny elements of this are actually tragic,” said another diplomat about Mrs. May and the Brexit saga. “I still hope Beckett, Kafka and Havel are not those who will finish writing this piece.”
Mr. Brady said that he had informed Mrs. May about the 48 letters on Tuesday evening by phone. She will have the opportunity to address Conservative Party members before they cast their ballots, he said, adding that Mrs. May had pressed to hold the vote quickly because of the imminence of Thursday’s European Union summit meeting.
If she loses the confidence vote, Mrs. May could in theory remain as prime minister until a successor as Conservative Party leader were selected. Mr. Brady said the process of choosing a successor would be likely to begin on Tuesday.
A series of ballots would then whittle the contenders down to a final two, something that Mr. Brady said could be done by next Thursday, when Parliament is scheduled to break for the Christmas vacation.
The final choice would be left to around 120,000 members of the Conservative Party who would vote by postal ballot. The timing for that process, and the duration of any campaign before the vote, has not yet been determined.
David Gauke, the justice secretary, warned pro-Brexit lawmakers that if Mrs. May were ousted, it would increase the risk that Britain would have to postpone its departure from the European Union. He argued that a successor would not be chosen until the end of January or early February, after the date at which the Brexit deal is expected to return to Parliament for the critical vote.
“It would be an act of self-indulgence to remove her as leader of the Conservative Party at this point,” Mr. Gauke told the BBC.
Mrs. May made the same point, arguing that whoever succeeded her would not have time to negotiate a new withdrawal agreement by March 29, and so “one of their first acts would have to be delaying or even rescinding” Britain’s exit from the union.
Wednesday’s vote will be conducted by secret ballot, which suggests that protestations of loyalty, even from cabinet ministers who took to Twitter to state their support, cannot be taken at face value.
Pro-Brexit lawmakers have been threatening to unseat Mrs. May for months but last month failed to muster the 48 no-confidence letters, in part because of worries that the prime minister might win and that it could actually strengthen her.
Faith in Mrs. May has ebbed after Monday’s damaging decision to avoid a parliamentary vote on Brexit, which drew condemnation from Conservatives as well as opposition parties.
Now that a leadership vote is scheduled, the psychology could change because the question will be whether or not lawmakers want to keep Mrs. May for at least a year — one during which a general election could take place. Last year Mrs. May called a general election but lost her parliamentary majority after a campaign which was widely criticized.
Mrs. May’s aides hinted on Wednesday that, if she wins the confidence motion, she could still stand aside at some point after Britain has formally left the European Union in March but before the next general election. That could persuade some lawmakers to lend Mrs. May their support in the vote on a temporary basis.
Pragmatic Conservative members of Parliament may also be reluctant to risk giving the choice of a replacement to their party’s grass-roots members, many of whom favor a maximally radical approach to Brexit.
This article has been republished from www.nytimes.com