London (AFP) – British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday vowed to fight “with everything I’ve got” a bid by her own party to oust her over her unpopular Brexit deal.
May faces a confidence vote on Wednesday evening sparked by anti-EU lawmakers in her Conservative party who want a cleaner break from the other 27 nations when Britain leaves on March 29.
The challenge plunged Britain into its biggest political crisis since May took office after a 2016 referendum triggered the island nation’s departure from the European project after 46 years.
Many of her cabinet ministers and senior MPs quickly rallied around her and the pound rose on British media reports that enough had already declared their backing for her to win.
Yet a victory may do little to resolve May’s ultimate problem: she is desperately short of the votes needed to get her draft withdrawal deal through parliament and time is quickly running out.
A close vote could also leave May politically hobbled. Reports suggest she will try to win backing by telling MPs before they cast their ballots that she will step down before the next general election in 2022.
May issued a defiant statement in Downing Street promising to “contest (Wednesday’s) vote with everything I’ve got”.
She warned that her ouster would spark a leadership contest that leaves the terms on which Britain pulls away from its main trading partner uncertain for weeks — “delaying or stopping Brexit”.
“I stand ready to finish the job,” she said.
A May loss would see a successor chosen from existing Conservative MPs. He or she would automatically become prime minister.
A win would make May immune from further party challenge for a year. The result is due around 9:00 pm (2100 GMT).
– ‘Flush out extremists’ –
Brexit supporters have for months threatened to submit the 48 letters from MPs needed to trigger a confidence vote designed to get a more devout eurosceptic to head the government.
The last batch came in after May — facing a heavy defeat — sparked fury among MPs by delaying a parliamentary vote scheduled for Tuesday on the deal she agreed with the EU last month.
A clutch of senior ministers rallied round in support — including many who might succeed her — within minutes of the vote’s announcement.
“The last thing our country needs right now is a Conservative party leadership election,” Home Secretary Sajid Javid said in a tweet designed to play down his own leadership aspirations.
Finance minister Philip Hammond said May’s victory would unite the party and “flush out the extremists who are trying to advance a particular agenda which would really not be in the interests of the British people”.
– Seeking concessions –
May was informed of the challenge after returning late Tuesday from a tour of European capitals in an attempt to salvage her Brexit deal.
She had promised MPs when she delayed the vote that she would seek “assurances” about their concerns on a so-called “backstop” plan to keep open the border with Ireland after Brexit.
Some Conservative MPs and May’s Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) fear a plan for a temporary customs arrangement with the EU will become permanent.
May received sympathy from EU partners on her trip but firm rejections of any attempt to reopen a Brexit deal that was only secured after 17 months of talks.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday — the day after meeting May in Berlin — that she still “has hope for an orderly exit” but “no intention to change the exit agreement”.
“We have little time, but we still have time,” the German leader said.
May cancelled a trip to Dublin on Wednesday for talks with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. She is still expected to attend an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
– Down to the wire –
May has said the parliamentary vote on Brexit will be held by January 21.
Lawmakers fear it might be delayed even further and a furious opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused May of being “contemptuous of parliament”.
University of Westminster policy professor Pippa Catterall said it would be in May’s interest to delay the vote until the process was “down to the wire… so in the end parliament is faced with the choice: my deal or no deal”.
May could face a further no-confidence motion from opposition parties if she survives Wednesday’s vote.
A lot will hinge on the DUP and its 10 votes that have been propping up May’s government for more than a year.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said on Wednesday she was not “surprised” by the confidence motion but focused on “the fact that the backstop needs to be taken out of that withdrawal agreement”.