On a day of high drama in Westminster, the embattled Prime Minister was hit by the resignation of her EU Exit Secretary Dominic Raab and six other MPs in frontbench and party roles as the Tory rift over her departure deal with Brussels burst into open civil warfare. A senior Downing Street aide overseeing Brexit legislation also quit. Mrs May was braced for a battle to hold onto her leadership after Jacob Rees-Mogg led backbench Eurosceptics in demanding an immediate no-confidence vote among Tory MPs. But in a defiant salvo at her party foes, the Prime Minister insisted she would fight any attempt to force her out and would not be deflected from her Brexit plan.
“I believe with every fibre of my being that the course I have set out is the right one for our country and all our people,” she said at a Downing Street news conference.
Asked if she would fight on even if she won a confidence ballot by just one vote, the Prime Minister said: “Am I going to see this through? Yes.”
In response to a question about whether she would “resign as captain”, cricket-loving Mrs May told said: “One of my cricket heroes was always Geoffrey Boycott.
“And what do you know about Geoffrey Boycott? Geoffrey Boycott stuck to it and he got the runs in the end.”
Mrs May’s authority was on the line in the aftermath of her attempt to force her Cabinet to back the deal agreed between UK and EU negotiators early this week.
Mr Raab quit early yesterday after failing to persuade the Prime Minister to dump her deal and return to Brussels with a final offer.
He was soon followed out of the Cabinet by Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey and a string of other frontbenchers.
Mrs May then found her deal under attack from MPs across the Commons during a gruelling three-hour question and answer session.
In one withering intervention, Mr Rees-Mogg accused her of misleading MPs about how closely the UK will be tied to Brussels through her deal and threatened to formally demand a vote of no-confidence in her leadership.
Brexit news: Theresa May may face more resignations and political pressure tomorrow
The backbencher, chairman of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tories, then held a meeting with colleagues before heading to the St Stephen’s Entrance to Parliament to announce that he had written to party chiefs to demand the ballot.
“This is not Brexit. It is a failure of Government policy. It needs to be rejected,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.
He goaded the Prime Minister by naming leading Tory Brexit supporters including Boris Johnson, David Davis, Mr Raab, Ms McVey and Penny Mordaunt as potential successors in Downing Street to deliver a clear break with the EU.
Mr Rees-Mogg predicted the 48-plus letters from Tory backbenchers needed to trigger a confidence vote would be delivered after a string of members of his European Research Group pledged to follow his lead.
Backing the move, former Brexit minister Steve Baker said: “We’ve tried everythng to change policy but not the Prime Minister but it has not worked. We need a new leader.”
Andrea Jenkyns, another former frontbencher, said: “From what MPs are telling me, more letters have gone in. I have even had current ministers tell me that in a vote of no confidence they would vote Theresa May out.
“She can fight it, but I am confident she will not win it.”
Ms Jenkyns claimed it was “time to save Brexit and our party with a new leader.”
Brexit news: Theresa May issued a rallying cry in Downing Street today
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee and custodian of the letter demanding a confidence vote, was understood to have held a meeting with Tory Chief Whip Julian Smith yesterday but did not publicly speak about a possible ballot.
Allies of the Prime Minister were appalled at the open disloyalty yesterday.
The Chief Whip said the Prime Minister would not abandon the withdrawal agreement in the face of widespread opposition among MPs.
Leaving Downing Street, he told reporters: “The Prime Minister is moving things on in the best interests of the country.
“The Prime Minister will not be bullied and will not change course.”
Foreign Office Minister Sir Alan Duncan said Mr Rees-Mogg’s intervention was “deeply destructive” for the Government and for the Conservative Party.
“If this Government is undermined further, we could destroy the Government, we could significantly damage and even destroy the Conservative Party,” he told the BBC.
“This could lead us to being almost ungovernable for a bit.”
Senior backbencher Sir Nicholas Soames, another loyalist, said: “It should be a point of Honour to see off the European Research Group and it’s hard-Right members who have been ruining the fortunes of our party for years.”
Mrs May launched her bid to sell her deal to Parliament and the country with a Commons statement yesterday morning.
She found her Brexit deal attacked both Leave and Remain-backing MPs on both sides of the House.
Mrs May rebuffed a string of attacks on her deal from all sides of the Commons during three hours of questioning.
Brexit news: Campaigners outside Westminster today as Theresa May clung to power
Rejecting accusations from Labour that she had bowed to pressure from Tory Brexiteers, the Prime Minister said: “I have kowtowed to no one. The instruction I take is the instruction that was given to every Member of this House by the British people in the referendum in 2016.”
Mrs May also rebuffed an invitation from Labour to confirm whether she thought the UK will be better off under her Brexit deal compared with being a member of the EU.
Labour MP asked her to say “hand on heart, whether she believes that what she has negotiated is better than the deal we have now”.
The Prime Minister replied: “I firmly believe that this country’s best days are ahead of us.
“We will get a good deal with the European Union and take advantage of our independence outside the EU with our trade deals around the rest of the world.”
In a hushed chamber, Mr Rees-Mogg told MPs that while the Prime Minister was “unquestionably honourable” her deeds had failed to match her words.
He said the deal failed to deliver her promises of pulling the country out of the EU’s customs union, protecting the integrity of the UK and ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
In a reference to Sir Graham Brady, he added: “As what my right honourable friend says, and what my right honourable friend does, no longer match, should I not write to my honourable friend the member for Altrincham and Sale West?”
In an intervention that made Mrs May wince, former minister Mark Francois told her that she had done her best but more than 80 Tories were ready to line up with opposition parties to vote down her deal.
“It is therefore mathematically impossible to get this deal through the House of Commons,” he warned.
“The stark reality, Prime Minister, is that it was dead on arrival at St Tommy’s before you stood up, so I plead with you to accept the political reality of the situation you now face,” he added.
Democratic Unionist Party deputy leader Nigel Dodds signalled that the 10 MPs from his Northern Ireland party could end their parliamentary alliance that props up Mrs May’s minority Tory government.
“I could stand here today and take the Prime Minister through the list of promises and pledges that she made to this House, and to us privately, about the future of Northern Ireland in the future relationship with the EU, but I fear it would be a waste of time, since she clearly does not listen,” he told her.
He accused her of pledging to pay a £39billion divorce bill to Brussels “for nothing” and praised resigning Tory ministers for their “strong actions”.
Mr Dodds added: “The choice is now clear: we stand up for the United Kingdom—the whole United Kingdom and the integrity of the United Kingdom—or we vote for a vassal state, with the break-up of the United Kingdom. That is the choice.”
Andrew Bridgen, one of Mrs May’s most outspoken Tory critics, told her: “The Prime Minister is well known for her dancing – sadly having seen the withdrawal agreement it’s now clear whose tune she’s been dancing to.”
He pointed out she had “campaigned for Remain, she voted Remain, now surely it’s in the national interest for her to leave – perhaps following a short transition period.”
It took 57 minutes of the Commons session for any MP to voice support for the Prime Minister and her draft deal.
Sir Peter Bottomley told her he backed her “in trying to get the sovereignty she has argued for, and the prospects of prosperity, security and a fruitful partnership across the channel, the North sea and across the world”.
He added: “The alternatives, if we do not go through with this, are the probability of crashing out and the possibility of a Government led by the Leader of the Opposition, neither of which is a desirable alternative.”
Speculation that International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, another Eurosceptic minister, could follow Mr Raab and Ms McVey out of the Cabinet subsided last night after she held met Mrs May in Downing Street and was seen leaving by ministerial car.