Theresa May vowed to fight “with everything I’ve got” Wednesday after her own party moved to oust her as British prime minister.
May will face a secret ballot of Conservative MPs, to be held in Parliament between 6pm and 8pm local time (1pm to 3pm ET) Wednesday.
The results will be revealed soon after. If 159 of her 315 MPs vote against her, May will be gone. If she survives, she cannot face a challenge for another year.
The long-threatened challenge finally arrived after 48 MPs from the ruling Conservative party wrote letters to a key committee saying they had lost confidence in May’s handling of negotiations to leave the European Union.
But by Wednesday afternoon, more than 170 of her MPs had publicly expressed support for her, suggesting she may survive the challenge, albeit with her leadership undermined.
May: Ousting me will threaten Britain’s future
Responding to the mutiny, May struck a defiant tone Wednesday, saying her removal would “put our country’s future at risk and create uncertainty when we can least afford it.”
“A leadership election would not change the fundamentals of the negotiation (with the EU) or the parliamentary arithmetic,” she said. “Weeks spent tearing ourselves apart will only create more division just as we should be standing together to serve our country. None of that would be in the national interest.”
She said despite the wishes of her rebel MPs for a new Brexit deal with the EU, any new leader wouldn’t have time to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, and get the deal approved by parliament before the March 29 deadline when Britain is scheduled to leave the bloc.
“So one of their first acts would have to be extending or rescinding Article 50 (the legal mechanism triggering Brexit), delaying or even stopping Brexit when people want us to get on with it,” she said.
A prime minister — and a country — in perpetual crisis
The leadership challenge throws Britain into deeper political crisis, with no agreement in place for the country’s future relationship with the EU when it leaves in four months’ time.
May inherited the leadership — and the task of steering the UK through Brexit negotiations — when former Prime Minister David Cameron stepped aside in the wake of the 2016 referendum vote.
She has been mired in crisis for much of her term, caught between hardliners in her party demanding a better deal with the EU, a European Union refusing to grant further concessions, and a large portion of the divided public who see Brexit as a historic blunder.
That crisis intensified Monday when May called off a planned parliamentary vote on her deal scheduled for Tuesday, which was widely tipped to be rejected by Parliament.
She spent Tuesday meeting with European leaders in a desperate bid to wring concessions which might get the deal through the British Parliament, but her negotiating partners have publicly insisted they will not budge.
Britain is supposed to submit its official position on the Brexit deal to the EU, after having voted on it in Parliament, by Jan. 21. Time is running out to make that deadline.
Should May fall, several Brexit outcomes are possible, including a so-called “no-deal Brexit,” tipped to be economically catastrophic, or a second, do-over referendum that could potentially reverse the decision to leave.
May’s opponents have been angered by the Northern Ireland backstop in her deal — an arrangement designed to ensure there is no return to a “hard border” between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, part of the UK, after Brexit. It would achieve this by keeping the entire U.K. in a customs union with the EU, and Northern Ireland within parts of the bloc’s single market, until an alternative is negotiated.
Conservative MP Jacob Rees Mogg, one of the leading rebels, said in a statement that May’s plan “would bring down the Government if carried forward. But our party will rightly not tolerate it.”
“Conservatives must now answer whether they wish to draw ever closer to an election under Mrs May's leadership. In the national interest, she must go.”
May’s supporters are rallying to her defense
With May's leadership hanging by a thread Wednesday, frontbench ministers rallied around, urging MPs to back her for the good of the country.
“The PM has my full support. At this critical time we need to support and work with the PM to deliver on leaving the EU, & our domestic agenda” tweeted Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that being prime minister was the “most difficult job imaginable right now and the last thing the country needs is a damaging and long leadership contest.” He warned his colleagues to back May, or risk failing to deliver Brexit.
“My sincere request to colleagues: BREXIT IS NOT GUARANTEED and the British people will not forgive us if we fail to deliver it. All those who want to stop it are praying for a Conservative leadership contest,” he tweeted.
News of the leadership challenge also sparked outrage from members of the public, weary with the continual political backbiting and deepening constitutional uncertainty as the Brexit deadline draws nearer.
“Somebody get a giant spiralizer down to Westminster now, because if the Tories decide to spend the next three weeks of this fractured country’s time having a leadership contest, I will personally salad the lot of them,” tweeted satirist Armando Iannucci.
Cover image: Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street on her way to Prime Minister's Questions, after it was announced that she will face a vote of no confidence, to take place tonight, on December 12, 2018 in London, England. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)