In an extraordinary act of political sacrifice, the Prime Minister offered to stand down from her post by the summer if Euro-sceptic Tory rebels back her EU Withdrawal Agreement in a crunch Commons vote on Friday. “I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party,” she told Tory MPs, her voice cracking with emotion. One MP present said the Prime Minister had “tears not far from her eyes” while others praised her dignity and patriotism.
Her promise to resign after delivering Brexit, made in an impassioned speech to a sombre meeting of Tory backbenchers at Westminster, could break the Brexit deadlock at last and set the country on course for freedom from Brussels rule on May 22.
Ministers hope a crunch Commons vote will be held on Friday – on the day that had been scheduled for the UK’s now delayed departure from the European bloc – will finally pass the deal.
Senior Tories expect a party leadership contest to select her successor will start shortly after the leaving date in May.
Within an hour of her announcement, her arch-rival Boris Johnson indicated he was ready to drop his opposition to the deal at last in order to save Brexit, along with fellow former Cabinet ministers Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey.
Mr Johnson and Miss McVey were tipped to join Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab, Elizabeth Truss and Andrea Leadsom in the looming battle for the Tory crown.
Brexit news: Theresa May has today outlined her plans to quit Downing Street
Mrs May’s sacrifice appeared to have triggered a significant shift in support towards backing her deal.
At least 18 Tories who voted against the deal in two previous votes last night switched last night, with at least another eight considering following them.
Mrs May’s took her high stakes gamble last night on another day of high drama at Westminster.
Just yards away from the packed parliamentary committee room where she addressed the Tory ranks, pro-Brussels MPs in the Commons chamber were debating a string of alternative Brexit plans that could leave the UK closely tied to Brussels forever.
Mrs May told the crammed meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers that the time had come to pull together to deliver on the result of the 2016 EU referendum.
“I ask everyone in this room to back the deal so we can complete our historic duty – to deliver on the decision of the British people and leave the European Union with a smooth and orderly exit,” she said.
She added: “This has been a testing time for our country and our party. We’re nearly there. We’re almost ready to start a new chapter and build that brighter future.
Brexit news: Theresa May has shocked Westminster during another day of Brexit chaos
“But before we can do that, we have to finish the job in hand. As I say, I don’t tour the bars and engage in the gossip – but I do make time to speak to colleagues, and I have a great team in the Whips’ Office.”
Mrs May also praised her parliamentary aides for keeping her in touch with backbench opinion.
“And I have heard very clearly the mood of the parliamentary party. I know there is a desire for a new approach – and new leadership – in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations – and I won’t stand in the way of that.
“I know some people are worried that if you vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, I will take that as a mandate to rush on into phase two without the debate we need to have. I won’t – I hear what you are saying.
“But we need to get the deal through and deliver Brexit.”
Brexit news: MPs are reeling after Theresa May announced plans to quit
MPs said the Prime Minister was “animated and passionate” but not tearful as she made her speech. She at the end of the gathering looking steely and determined.
One MP said: “She handled the room brilliantly. She was more relaxed than I have ever seen her. She’s done what she needed to do and colleagues should come on board now.”
Leading Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, who finally agreed to back her deal earlier this week to stop the threat of Brexit being wrecked, said after the meeting: “Today is a day for praising Theresa May and thanking her for what she has done. She has laid down her personal ambition and her own job in the interests of the country and the Conservative Party.”
He added: “The Prime Minister was incredibly dignified. Although I was involved in the challenge against her last year, there is never any joy or happiness in somebody’s political career coming to an end.
Andrew Percy MP backed the Prime Minister
“There’s always a poignancy about that and I think the Prime Minister did do it in an amazingly dignified way, and that is right and proper.
“Although I don’t agree with her on everything, I have always greatly respected her approach to doing her duty and I think that shone through.”
Tory MP Andrew Percy, who backs Mrs May’s deal, describe the way she had been forced out was “unforgivable”.
“I am slightly irritated and probably even more irritated now that the price of supporting what I think is a good deal, bringing this to a conclusion, is all based around personality rather than based around principle, and I think that is unforgivable,” he said.
“The Prime Minister has done her duty. She has had all sorts of things thrown at her, a lot of it very unfair. I am sorry it has come down to personalities.”
Tory MP Simon Hart said: “She was passionate about getting the deal through, passionate about keeping the party together and passionate about keeping the Government as the Government, passionate about keeping Jeremy Corbyn out of Number 10.”
Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, called the prime minister’s speech “dignified and honest”
Ms Truss said: “She cares deeply about our country and is a patriot. People must now support the deal and move us forward.”
George Freeman, the Prime Minister’s former policy adviser, said she had done the “right thing”.
He said: “It was a very sad moment. She has devoted her life to public service. There was silence in the room and it was incredibly sad.”
Mr Freeman said the Prime Minister had “tears not far from her eyes”.
Ministers yesterday tabled a business motion to allow the Commons to sit tomorrow in the hope of holding a third and final “meaningful vote” on the Prime Minister’s deal.
Sources in the Mr Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers said around 20 members were still planning to vote against the Prime Minister’s deal.
Former Brexit minister Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the ERG, threatened to resign the party whip in anger at the deal.
In an impassioned speech at a meeting of members of the group in Westminster, he denounced the Prime Minister’s speech at the 1922 Committee as a “pantomime”.
He said: “I’m consumed with a ferocious rage after that pantomime. What is our liberty for if not to govern ourselves? Like all of you, I have wrestled with my conscience about what to do.
“I could tear this place down and bulldoze it into the river. These fools and knaves and cowards are voting on things they don’t even understand.
“We’ve been put in this place by people whose addiction to power without responsibility has led them to put the choice of No Brexit or this deal.
“I may yet resign the whip than be part of this.”
In a blow to Mrs May’s hopes of her deal passing, the DUPstill refused to back her deal because of objections to the proposed “backstop” mechanism for guaranteeing Northern Ireland’s open border with the Irish Republic.
“We will not be supporting the Government if they table a fresh meaningful vote,” said a statement from the DUP.
The wording of the statement raised hopes the DUP could be ready to abstain, which might allow the deal to pass, however.
The statement warned that the backstop “poses an unacceptable threat of the integrity of the UK and will inevitably limit the UK’s ability to negotiate on the type of future relationship with the EU.”