Theresa May is set to resign as the Conservative leader today, clearing the way for a new prime minister by the end of July.
She is expected to bring her premiership of nearly three years to a close after a meeting with Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers.
Mrs May will remain in No 10 during a leadership election lasting about six weeks, and may even try to pass part of her Brexit deal. The contest is likely to start on June 10 after the state visit by President Trump.
The prime minister left Downing Street yesterday afternoon to spend the night in her Maidenhead constituency and was expected to return early today.
Allies said that she had decided to set a departure date after a final attempt to win cross-party backing for her Brexit deal failed.
Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, urged Mrs May yesterday to abandon efforts to pass the legislation entirely. “He told her to pull the whole bill and that it was unfair to ask colleagues to vote for it. It was a waste of political capital,” a source said. Although Mr Hunt stopped short of urging her to resign directly, his appeal amounts to a notice to quit from a former close ally.
Sajid Javid, the home secretary, also told her in a separate meeting that her last-ditch effort to win cross-party support with an offer to facilitate a second Brexit referendum was doomed.
Mrs May gave no indication of whether she agreed with them. Later her spokesman said only that she was “listening to colleagues”. Allies said that their representations were unnecessary since she had already taken the decision to announce her departure today.
A YouGov poll for The Times suggested that Boris Johnson was the overwhelming favourite among the 125,000 Tory members to be the next leader. He must make it to a final two selected by Tory MPs, however, and faces competition from other Brexiteers including Dominic Raab and Andrea Leadsom. Both Mr Hunt and Mr Javid are expected to run, as is Matthew Hancock, the health secretary.
A crowded field is likely to thin quickly as candidates withdraw or are knocked out in successive rounds of voting. The requirement to hold hustings in 11 regions as well as a postal ballot of members is likely to take at least a month once the final two have been selected.
Mrs May will remain prime minister until her successor is chosen and could continue her efforts to pass a Brexit deal before the deadline of October 31 set by the EU. One idea is for her to use her remaining time in No 10 to pass the least controversial elements of her deal. “Parliament needs something to do until the end of July and it would be helpful to whichever leader is elected to have some of the legislation in place given the October 31 deadline,” a source close to Steve Barclay, the Brexit secretary, said. “You could potentially deal with citizens’ rights and the implementation period, which are largely uncontroversial. It would then allow a new leader to talk to Brussels about the other aspects of the deal.”
The prime minister is likely to take a final decision on her future today knowing that if she refuses to set a timetable Tory MPs are ready to force a vote of no confidence. Sir Graham held a secret ballot of members of the 1922 executive on Wednesday on whether to suspend rules that limit such votes to one a year.
Mrs May, who survived a vote in December, will know that even if the executive did not vote for a change she would struggle to survive the fallout from the European elections. Polls suggest that the Tories will come fifth, behind the Greens.
Both Mrs May and Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, are braced for a backlash from voters, with the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats expected to pick up votes. Ken Clarke, the former chancellor, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, “I suspect the majority of Conservative MPs did not vote Conservative yesterday.”
Seventy-three MEPs will be elected to represent the UK, with England, Scotland and Wales using a form of proportional representation called the D’Hondt system and Northern Ireland using the single transferable vote method. The results will be announced on Sunday when the last polling station on the continent closes.
Mrs May announced her last reshuffle after the resignation of Ms Leadsom on Wednesday, with Mel Stride becoming Commons leader.
Asked whether the prime minister would still be in place when Mr Trump visited in June, Mr Hunt said yesterday: “Theresa May will be prime minister to welcome him and rightly so.”
Margot James, the digital minister, said: “It’s all very regrettable but she’s being hounded out of office because parliament will not make a decision and the parties just have an inability to compromise. But in the end there’s got to be a compromise.”
How does a leadership election work?
Conservative leadership elections have two stages: for MPs and then the membership. Sir Graham Brady, who as chairman of the 1922 Committee is effectively the shop steward of Tory backbenchers, is in charge of the first stage.
Once a leadership election is triggered, Sir Graham will work out a timetable with other officers of the executive of the committee. The goal is to whittle down the candidates to a final two, who will then be put before members. To stand, an MP requires two others to agree to be their proposer and a seconder.
How are candidates eliminated?
MPs will vote on all the candidates still standing by the time of the first round. In 2016 Boris Johnson pulled out before this. They have one vote each. The MP with the fewest votes is eliminated and all the others proceed to another vote, until there are only two left.
How long does it take?
It depends how many candidates there are. MPs are worried that with the likelihood of a large number it could take too long to have a new prime minister by the summer. In every previous leadership election under this system, ballots are held every Tuesday and Thursday while parliament is sitting. So if, say, ten candidates stood in this election, the process of whittling the options down to two would take four weeks. Sir Graham will probably decide to make the ballots more rapid. It is also likely that some candidates will withdraw between ballots, as Stephen Crabb did in 2016.
Who votes on the final two?
Once MPs have settled on two candidates, the membership enters the process, voting by postal ballot. Last time this stage did not take place because Andrea Leadsom withdrew. The last time the Tory membership delivered a verdict in a leadership election was 2005, when David Cameron won.
How long does this take?
The board, made up mainly of figures from the voluntary party and officers from Tory HQ, will decide. The tension will be between wanting to ensure that there are as many hustings in as many parts of the country as possible (a demand of the voluntary wing) and not delaying the installation of a new prime minister.
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