LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May was holding crisis talks with colleagues on Sunday in an effort to breathe life into her twice-defeated Brexit deal after reports that her cabinet was plotting to topple her.
The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union was already slipping from May’s weakened grasp as she struggled to increase support for her deal and parliament prepared to grab control of Brexit in the coming days.
At one of the most important junctures for the country since World War Two, British politics was at fever pitch. Yet, nearly three years since the 2016 referendum, it remains unclear how, when or if Brexit will ever take place.
With May humiliated and weakened, ministers publicly downplayed any immediate threat to her leadership, insisting that she is still in control and the best option is for parliament to ratify her Brexit divorce deal.
After hundreds of thousands of people marched across central London on Saturday to demand another Brexit referendum, May was the subject of what The Sunday Times said was a “coup” by senior ministers seeking to oust her.
The newspaper cited 11 unidentified senior ministers and said they had agreed that the prime minister should stand down, warning that she has become a toxic and erratic figure whose judgment has “gone haywire”.
But two of the leading candidates as caretaker leaders – May’s de facto deputy David Lidington and Environment Secretary Michael Gove – backed May on Sunday.
“I don’t think that I have any wish to take over from the PM; I think (she) is doing a fantastic job,” Lidington told reporters outside his house.
“One thing that working closely with the prime minister does is cure you completely of any lingering shred of ambition to want to do that task,” he quipped.
Gove also downplayed the possibility of a coup.
“I think it is not the time to change the captain of the ship. I think what we need to do is to chart the right course, and the prime minister has charted that right course by making sure that we have a deal that honors the referendum mandate,” he said.
Finance Minister Philip Hammond said that a change of prime minister at this stage would not help to break the Brexit impasse.
“To be talking about changing the players on the board, frankly, is self-indulgent at this time,” he told Sky News.
May was meeting senior colleagues, including strong Brexiteers, on Sunday at her Chequers country residence.
Hammond said the best way forward would be for parliament to back May’s deal, and if lawmakers did not, they should then try to find a way to end the deadlock.
“I’m realistic that we may not be able to get a majority for the prime minister’s (Brexit) deal and if that is the case then parliament will have to decide not just what it’s against but what it is for,” he said.
Brexit had been due to happen on March 29 before May secured a delay in talks with the EU on Thursday.
Now a departure date of May 22 will apply if parliament rallies behind the prime minister and she is able to pass her deal. If she fails, Britain will have until April 12 to offer a new plan or decide to leave the EU without a treaty.
Some lawmakers have asked May to name her departure date as the price for supporting her deal, though it was unclear when a third vote might take place.
If May’s deal is dead, then parliament will try to find a different option. That opens an array of possibilities including a much softer divorce than May had intended, a second referendum, a revocation of the Article 50 divorce papers or even an election.
When shown a list of scenarios by Sky News, Hammond ruled out no-deal and cancelling Brexit completely by revoking Article 50, leaving a second referendum as a possibility.
“I’m not sure there’s a majority in parliament in support of a second referendum,” he said.
“Many people will be strongly opposed to it, but it’s a coherent proposition and it deserves to be considered along with the other proposals.”
Lawmakers are due on Monday to debate a government motion saying parliament has considered a statement made by May on March 15 setting out the government’s next steps on Brexit, including the plan to seek a delay.
They are likely to propose changes, or amendments, to this motion setting out alternative ways forward on Brexit. These are expected to include a proposal to approve May’s deal only if it is put to a public vote.
While amendments are not legally binding, instead simply exerting political pressure on May to change course, lawmakers could use one to seek change in parliamentary rules to wrest control of the Brexit process from the government.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay, however, said that an election could be the result if lawmakers back proposals contrary to the pledges on which the government was elected.
“At it’s logical conclusion the risk of a general election increases because you potentially have a situation where parliament is instructing the executive to do something that is counter to what it was elected to do,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr.
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Keith Weir and David Goodman