In delaying Brexit again, British Prime Minister Theresa May has put off her own promised departure date – but the move risks reviving efforts by her furious colleagues to unseat her.
May said last month she would step down once her EU divorce agreement was passed by the British parliament, an offer she hoped would persuade her Conservative critics to back the plan.
It failed and, faced with the prospect of a “no deal” exit on Friday, she has now agreed to delay Brexit, potentially until October 31.
Downing Street says she stands by her commitment to see through this stage of Britain’s exit, and some colleagues say she is going nowhere.
“I don’t think we should be rushing to change our leader when there is a big task to be done,” Justice Secretary David Gauke told the BBC ahead of the summit.
May herself told a Brussels press conference that she “sincerely regrets” the delay but “we must now press on at pace with our efforts to reach a consensus on a deal”.
But many of May’s Conservative MPs are livid that Britain is now likely to take part in European Parliament elections next month – something she previously said would be unacceptable.
Brexit-supporting MP Peter Bone earlier noted May said she would not accept staying in the EU beyond June 30.
“If the prime minister intends to keep her word, can we expect her resignation later tonight?” he tweeted.
May’s move to reach a compromise with the opposition Labour Party to find votes to replace those she has lost on her own side has also provoked accusations of “surrender”.
And, Brexit anger aside, a growing number of Conservatives — including ministers — are already making moves for the anticipated vacancy in the top job.
May has faced constant challenges since taking office following the historic 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU, presiding over a divided party and since 2017, without a majority in parliament.
More than 30 ministers have quit since the 2017 election, with some – notably Boris Johnson – becoming the strongest critics of her European strategy.
Her failure to get her EU divorce deal through parliament in recent months has left her authority in tatters, unable to control legislation or even her own ministers.
In a vote on the eve of the EU summit, 97 Conservative MPs opposed May’s original plan to delay Brexit until June 30, and around 80 more abstained.
EU leaders rejected this date after a lengthy discussion in Brussels, but the new date of October 31 is shorter than some proposed.
This potentially scuppers any MPs hoping to use an extension to replace May with someone who would play tougher with the EU.
And there is no obvious way for May’s Conservative critics to replace her.
She survived a confidence vote within her Conservative party in December, making her immune for a year.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also tried to oust the government in January but May’s MPs rallied around, unwilling to risk another election.
None of those skills
She has hinted she might voluntarily step down if she fails to get a Brexit deal through by June 30.
But the pressure to quit might come earlier, if the Conservatives do badly at local elections on May 2.
Aides emphasise her determination to deliver Brexit, but many believe it is May’s rigidity that is blocking any compromise deal with MPs.
Professor Meg Russell, of University College London’s Constitution Unit, noted that leading a minority government requires a “flexible, nimble approach, including the ability to compromise and to work cross-party”.
“Theresa May clearly has none of these skills,” she wrote.
However, her premiership has been marked by her dogged refusal to give up, and few commentators would rule out the prospect that she tries to stay on for as long as possible.