Theresa May has announced she will stand down as prime minister if her Brexit deal finally secures a majority in Parliament in a desperate, last-ditch gamble to deliver on her promise when she took office of taking Britain out of the European Union.
Her voice cracking in an emotional address to the backbench Conservative 1922 Committee on Wednesday, May succumbed to weeks of intense pressure from Tory MPs by confirming she will make way for a new PM to lead the next stage of negotiations with the EU if her withdrawal agreement is approved by the House of Commons at the third attempt.
"I have heard very clearly the mood of the parliamentary party. I know there is a desire for a new approach — and new leadership — in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations, and I won’t stand in the way of that," she said.
Declining to set a specific departure date, May told Tory MPs: "I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party."
Downing Street sources said they expected that if the withdrawal agreement is ratified by May 22, then a Tory leadership contest to determine the next prime minister would begin soon after.
May hopes that by making the announcement now — the very last card she has — she will persuade rebel MPs to swing behind her deal in the belief that a different leader will have more success during the negotiations on the future relationship.
At a meeting of the European Research Group of Tory Brexiteers after May's speech, Boris Johnson, who has strongly opposed the withdrawal agreement, said he would now support it.
An ERG source said "dozens" of backbenchers who previously voted against the withdrawal agreement are now expected to announce they will back it at the third meaningful vote, which could come later this week — though there is fresh doubt about whether Speaker John Bercow will allow it to go ahead without substantial changes.
The government nonetheless faces an uphill struggle to overturn the previous defeats, which were by historic margins. By BuzzFeed News' count, there are currently more than 50 Tory MPs who still oppose the deal.
May became prime minister in July 2016 following David Cameron’s resignation in the wake of the EU referendum. She has to hold office for another 63 days to overtake Gordon Brown’s two years and 319 days in Number 10.
The commitment to hand over the keys to Number 10 has been a key demand of rebel MPs as May sought to vote for the EU withdrawal agreement.
At a meeting at the PM's Chequers residence on Sunday, Brexiteer MPs led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith told the PM that in order to get the deal through she would have to set out a departure timetable.
On Saturday, BuzzFeed News revealed that May had been told by her whips' office — with one whip on the verge of tears — that the deal would not get through unless backbenchers received guarantees about the future leadership of the party.
The pressure on May to step down has been building for months.
In January, BuzzFeed News reported that Tory MPs had told Downing Street aides May could win support for her deal by agreeing to step down afterwards. In the autumn, May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell discussed the idea with a cabinet minister, but it was seen as a “last resort” after all other options had been exhausted.
In February, a former cabinet minister told BuzzFeed News that “dozens” of rebels would switch if she agreed to quit. Another Tory MP said: “The only way I will vote for the deal is if she makes a cast-iron pledge to go.”
Several MPs made the demand directly in face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations with the PM.
Earlier on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the prime minister said that May’s deal would be brought back before Parliament only if support was there for it in the House, adding that the government was still working on building that support.
The spokesperson did not rule out MPs sitting on Friday — or even Saturday — to meet the deadline set by the European Union. Should Parliament fail to pass a deal this week, the spokesperson said the deal could still be brought later as discussions with EU leaders continue.
However, the chances of May achieving a majority remain slim as Labour stood firm in its refusal to back her deal. A spokesperson said there would be no point in looking to support her agreement, as it has been proven not to have a majority in Parliament. The spokesperson said that in Labour's view there would be a majority in Parliament for another way forward.
Here are Theresa May's words to the 1922 committee in full:
This has been a testing time for our country and our party. We’re nearly there. We’re almost ready to start a new chapter and build that brighter future.
But before we can do that, we have to finish the job in hand. As I say, I don’t tour the bars and engage in the gossip — but I do make time to speak to colleagues, and I have a great team in the Whips' Office. I also have two excellent PPSs.
And I have heard very clearly the mood of the parliamentary party. I know there is a desire for a new approach — and new leadership — in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations, and I won’t stand in the way of that.
I know some people are worried that if you vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, I will take that as a mandate to rush on into phase two without the debate we need to have. I won’t — I hear what you are saying.
But we need to get the deal through and deliver Brexit.
I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party.
I ask everyone in this room to back the deal so we can complete our historic duty — to deliver on the decision of the British people and leave the European Union with a smooth and orderly exit.