With Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain facing yet another defeat in Parliament over her Brexit plans, her governing Conservative Party is now confronting a dilemma: Should they allow their wounded pilot to go down in flames or should they press the ejector button first?
Either way, Mrs. May’s turbulent time in Downing Street is entering its final stages by her own admission, wrecked by her failure to persuade Parliament to support her deal to leave the European Union.
As Wednesday wore on, rumors swirled with increasing intensity of a cabinet revolt against Mrs. May, the day after her latest plan to resolve Brexit provoked a ferocious backlash from her own lawmakers.
With her leadership already on life support, Mrs. May’s latest Brexit proposal, announced on Tuesday, was seen as her last chance to salvage some sort of legacy from her time in power by persuading Parliament to accept a variant on a blueprint it has already rejected three times.
But so negative was the reaction to her proposal that some lawmakers believe that putting it up for a vote would make matters worse, not better, because another crushing defeat would complicate life for her successor. Nigel Evans, a member of an influential committee of Conservative lawmakers, said that Mrs. May should “make way for fresh leadership without handcuffing her successor to a poisoned baton.”
Throughout Wednesday, pressure mounted on Mrs. May to scrap the vote that she is still promising for the week beginning June 3, and to name the date of her departure immediately.
Mrs. May’s ability to dig deep and survive any amount of political pain has been perhaps the defining feature of her period in power. On Wednesday, she defended her Brexit blueprint doggedly in Parliament as she has done so often before, even as she conceded that “in time another prime minister will be standing at this dispatch box.”
But the support a prime minister would normally expect was conspicuously absent, with many of Mrs. May’s fellow Conservatives staying away from the chamber and leaving her to fend for herself. All the while around Parliament, an expanding crowd of hopefuls are lobbying Conservative lawmakers for support in the looming contest for her job.
In one last desperate act, Mrs. May has revamped a proposal that would keep Britain tied to Europe’s main economic structures at least until the end of 2020, then take it out of the bloc’s customs and trading system.
But constructing a revised deal that might gain the support of a wider coalition of lawmakers, including some from the opposition Labour Party, has put Mrs. May on a political tightrope.
With her revamped plan, Mrs. May aimed to win over Labour lawmakers by offering the opportunity to vote on whether to put any plan for Brexit to a second referendum. Lawmakers would also be allowed to vote on whether to keep Britain, temporarily, in a type of customs union with the European Union that would eliminate tariffs and many checks on goods at borders.
But while the Labour leadership rejected the concessions as insufficient, many of Mrs. May’s pro-Brexit lawmakers were horrified, and several of those who had reluctantly supported the government in its last Brexit vote have said they would not do so again.
Another defeat would be particularly problematic since Mrs. May is not offering lawmakers a general vote on her deal but one on specific legislation to take Britain out of the bloc. Losing that would limit the options for a new prime minister, who would not be able to bring back the bill in the same parliamentary session.
On Wednesday, one Conservative lawmaker, Nicky Morgan, appealed to Mrs. May to reflect on whether to proceed with her Brexit vote, noting that the “consequences of it not being passed are very serious.”
Earlier, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, gave an agile and evasive interview to the BBC in which he hinted that the bill might not come forward as planned — without saying whether it would.
That question is connected to the timing of Mrs. May’s departure.
Earlier this year she promised to step down if lawmakers voted for her deal. Then, last week, she told senior Conservative lawmakers that, if her proposal was rejected again, she would set out a timetable for her successor to be chosen.
Convincing her to withdraw the proposal would be an effective admission that she cannot win, and would seem to fulfill that condition — giving lawmakers a way to send her packing without shouldering direct responsibility.
Though Mrs. May now has only threadbare support — at best — from her cabinet, senior colleagues are divided into factions depending on their willingness to contemplate the huge economic risks of withdrawing from the European Union unilaterally. With little trust among them, cabinet ministers have struggled to maneuver against Mrs. May, and levering her out of Downing Street quickly is also complicated by the upcoming political calendar.
Late on Sunday results will start coming in from European elections, in which opinion polls suggest the Conservatives will be humiliated. That would put Mrs. May under pressure to resign immediately. But Monday is a public holiday, and Parliament will be on vacation until June 4, when President Trump is scheduled to be in Britain on his state visit.
If she can survive this week, Mrs. May is likely to be able to continue until after the visit. But sooner or later, the time will come for her to lay down a timetable for the election of the next leader of the Conservative Party.