“I cannot support this bill”;Commons Leaders Andrea Leadsom as she leaves May’s government
A truly bad day for Theresa May, one which would certainly count as the worst-ever for many other prime ministers, actually began very late the previous night as the newspaper front pages dropped on social media.
Probably the most brutal of a scathing bunch was the Telegraph, traditionally the bible of Conservative thought: “Desperate, deluded, doomed,” it read, above a trio of images of the prime minister in mid-gurn giving her Brexit speech.
With reaction to May’s “10-point offer” becoming more negative by the hour, the apparent No 10 strategy seemed to be to somehow get through the day, and thus on to the media purdah of Thursday’s European elections, and then into next week’s parliamentary recess.
For May and her aides, the first challenge was prime minister’s questions, followed by a Commons statement on her planned withdrawal agreement bill, Downing Street’s latest and final vehicle for the PM’s Brexit ambitions.
With ministerial and backbench unrest growing, not least about the decision to include an offer of a vote on a second Brexit referendum, the prime minister could have expected a barrage of criticism when she stood up at midday for PMQs.
Instead, the reaction was arguably worse: silence, an almost near-indifference. Barely any Conservative MPs bothered to cheer as May clashed with Jeremy Corbyn over school funding, the Labour leader again avoiding questions on Brexit.
Equally notable were the gaps on the Conservative benches, including alongside May, while the usually ever-present Commons leader, Andrea Leadsom, only arrived near the end.
“Something’s going on. Things could move quickly,” noted one cabinet minister. Leadsom, it transpired, had been at a meeting of the so-called Pizza Club group of MPs, which convened just before PMQs.
Leadsom and Liz Truss, the Treasury chief secretary, were vehemently opposed to the Brexit plan, it emerged. Michael Gove, the environment secretary, and Liam Fox, the trade secretary, were among those suggesting the withdrawal bill be pulled for now, without demanding May’s resignation.
The inference was nonetheless clear. Sources close to Pizza Club ministers conceded “the end of the withdrawal bill would inevitably lead to the end of May”.
The first sign of open movement came, unexpectedly, from David Mundell, the Scottish secretary from the soft Brexit wing of the party, who was furious that the prime minister had given fuel to the SNP’s hopes for a second independence referendum by opening the door to one on Brexit.
He demanded a meeting with the prime minister, although sources close to him stressed he was not asking her to resign. There was talk of a group of pro-Brexit ministers marching in to make their discontent known to the prime minister.
It then emerged that Sajid Javid, the home secretary, and Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, had also demanded meetings.
A parallel onslaught came from the backbenches. Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the foreign affairs committee, called on May to go, saying “leadership matters and it has been absent for too long”, while Stephen Crabb, a former leadership contender, said she had to depart “within weeks”.
With the PM holed up again in No 10 after battling through a 90-minute Commons grilling, in which she repeatedly insisted her plan was “the only way that we can deliver Brexit”, the chief whip, Julian Smith, arrived looking grim-faced.