Fighting growing calls for her to stand aside quickly, British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a significant blow when a Cabinet colleague resigned, saying she could no longer support the Government's latest plan for leaving the European Union.
Andrea Leadsom left her position as leader of the House of Commons at the end of a day of swirling rumours about a Cabinet coup against May. There is a ferocious backlash among Conservative MPs against her latest plan to resolve the Brexit crisis.
In her resignation letter, Leadsom said she was leaving because she no longer believed that the Government's approach would deliver on the 2016 referendum decision to leave the European Union.
She could not, she said, announce planned new legislation "with new elements that I fundamentally oppose".
That was a reference to a promise made by May yesterday that under her revamped Brexit proposal, MPs would be able to vote on whether to hold a second referendum. MPs would also decide whether their country should continue to follow — at least temporarily — the EU's customs rule book.
In response to Leadsom's letter, May's office said it was "disappointed that she has chosen to resign, and the Prime Minister remains focused on delivering the Brexit people voted for".
Leadsom, a hardline Brexit supporter, contested the Conservative leadership in 2016 and made the final shortlist of two, but ultimately withdrew, leaving May the sole candidate.
By her own admission, May's turbulent time in Downing Street is now entering its final stages, and Leadsom is likely to be a candidate again when the contest to succeed her formally starts.
With May's leadership already on life support, her latest Brexit proposal was seen as her last chance to salvage some sort of legacy from her time in power by persuading Parliament to accept a variant on a blueprint it has already rejected three times.
The Conservative Party is now confronting a quandary: Should they allow their wounded pilot to go down in flames or should they press the ejector button first?
I think we're heading for a no deal Brexit. And I think history will remember May not actually that unkindly, as the doomed, out-of-her-depth PM who tried very hard to avoid that.— Hugo Rifkind (@hugorifkind) May 22, 2019
So negative was the reaction to her proposal that some MPs believe that putting it up for a vote would make matters worse, not better, because another crushing defeat would complicate life for her successor.
Nigel Evans, a member of an influential committee of Conservative MPs, said that May should "make way for fresh leadership without handcuffing her successor to a poisoned baton".
Throughout the day, pressure mounted on May to scrap the vote that she is still promising for the week beginning June 3, and to name the date of her departure immediately.
May's ability to dig deep and survive any amount of political pain has been perhaps the defining feature of her period in power. Today, she defended her Brexit blueprint doggedly in Parliament as she has done so often before, even as she conceded that "in time another prime minister will be standing at this dispatch box".
But the support a prime minister would normally expect was conspicuously absent, with many of May's fellow Conservatives staying away from the chamber and leaving her to fend for herself. All the while around Parliament, an expanding crowd of hopefuls are lobbying Conservative MPs for support in the looming contest for her job.
May has achieved the impressive feat of convincing MPs who like the sound of her concessions that she doesn't mean it and can't deliver, and MPs that oppose them that they are real and have to be opposed.— Stephen Bush (@stephenkb) May 22, 2019
In one last desperate act, May has revamped a proposal that would keep Britain tied to Europe's main economic structures at least until the end of 2020, then take it out of the bloc's customs and trading system.
But constructing a revised deal that might gain the support of a wider coalition of MPs, including some from the opposition Labour Party, has put May on a political tightrope.
With her revamped plan, May aimed to win over Labour MPs by offering the opportunity to vote on whether to put any plan for Brexit to a second referendum. MPs would also be allowed to vote on whether to keep Britain, temporarily, in a type of customs union with the EU that would eliminate tariffs and many checks on goods at borders.
But while the Labour leadership rejected the concessions as insufficient, many of May's pro-Brexit MPs were horrified, and several of those who had reluctantly supported the Government in its last Brexit vote have said they would not do so again.
Another defeat would be particularly problematic since May is not offering MPs a general vote on her deal but one on specific legislation to take Britain out of the bloc. Losing that would limit the options for a new prime minister, who would not be able to bring back the bill in the same parliamentary session.
One Conservative MP, Nicky Morgan, appealed to May to reflect on whether to proceed with her Brexit vote, noting that the "consequences of it not being passed are very serious".
Earlier, the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, gave an agile and evasive interview to the BBC in which he hinted that the bill might not come forward as planned — without saying whether it would.
That question is connected to the timing of May's departure.
Earlier this year she promised to step down if MPs voted for her deal. Then, last week, she told senior Conservative MPs that, if her proposal was rejected again, she would set out a timetable for her successor to be chosen.
Convincing her to withdraw the proposal would be an effective admission that she cannot win, and would seem to fulfill that condition — giving MPs a way to send her packing without shouldering direct responsibility.
Though May now has only threadbare support — at best — from her Cabinet, senior colleagues are divided into factions depending on their willingness to contemplate the huge economic risks of withdrawing from the EU unilaterally.
For all her flaws May has served as a vessel into which countless problems intrinsic to Brexit have been poured. I don't think Tories are prepared for what happens when it finally breaks.— Rafael Behr (@rafaelbehr) May 22, 2019
With little trust among them, Cabinet ministers have struggled to manoeuver against May, and leveraging her out of Downing Street quickly is also complicated by the upcoming political calendar.
On Monday NZT, results will start coming in from European elections, in which opinion polls suggest the Conservatives will be humiliated. That would put May under pressure to resign immediately.
But Tuesday is a public holiday, and Parliament will be on holiday until June 4, when US President Donald Trump is scheduled to be in Britain on his state visit.
If she can survive this week, May is likely to be able to continue until after the visit.
But sooner or later, the time will come for her to lay down a timetable for the election of the next leader of the Conservative Party.
Written by: Stephen Castle
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES