Theresa May has vowed to fight on and deliver Brexit, after one of the toughest days of her premiership saw her hit by four ministerial resignations and a wave of demands for her removal as Prime Minister.
Dominic Raab and Esther McVey sensationally walked out of Mrs May’s Cabinet, while leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg declared he had no confidence in her leadership amid a furious backlash against her plans for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
During three hours of questioning in the House of Commons, the PM faced Tory backbench accusations that the Brexit deal agreed by Cabinet on Wednesday was “dead on arrival” and would never survive the parliamentary vote expected next month.
Only a handful of her own MPs spoke up in favour of the plan, denounced by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as a “half-baked deal” which did not meet the six tests his party had set for it to get their support.
But in a defiant press conference in 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister insisted she would “see this through”.
Standing before a pair of Union flags, Mrs May compared herself to her stubborn but effective cricketing hero as she told reporters: “What do you know about Geoffrey Boycott? Geoffrey Boycott stuck to it and he got the runs in the end.”
Her appearance came at the end of a chaotic day in which the value of the pound plunged amid widespread doubts over whether Mrs May could deliver her deal or would even be able to cling on to power.
Mr Raab – the man chosen in July to represent Mrs May in negotiations with Brussels – quit as Brexit Secretary, warning the deal represented a “very real threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom” because of provisions for Northern Ireland.
And Ms McVey resigned as Work and Pensions Secretary, telling the PM she could not defend the agreement approved by Cabinet in a stormy five-hour meeting.
Earlier this morning I informed the Prime Minister I was resigning from her Cabinet pic.twitter.com/ZeBkL5n2xH
— Esther McVey (@EstherMcVey1) November 15, 2018
His move is expected to be matched by other ERG members, raising expectations that the tally of letters to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, may soon pass the threshold of 48 which would trigger a confidence vote.
But at a press conference in Number 10, Mrs May said: “I believe with every fibre of my being that the course I have set out is the right one for our country and all our people.”
She added: “Leadership is about taking the right decisions, not the easy ones.
“As PM my job is to bring back a deal that delivers on the vote of the British people, that does that by ending free movement … ensuring we are not sending vast annual sums to the EU any longer, ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, but also protects jobs and protects people’s livelihoods, protects our security, protects the union of the United Kingdom.
“I believe this is a deal which does deliver that, which is in the national interest, and am I going to see this through? Yes.”
Two more junior ministers – Suella Braverman at the Brexit department and Shailesh Vara at Northern Ireland – also quit.
And Mrs May also lost two parliamentary private secretaries and a vice-chairman of the party.
Another Cabinet Brexiteer, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, was in Downing Street to see the Prime Minister on Wednesday evening.
There were rumours at Westminster that Leave-supporting Michael Gove had been lined up to replace Mr Raab – but he would only agree to the job if he could renegotiate the deal.
Asked about the speculation, Mrs May said Mr Gove was “doing an excellent job” as Environment Secretary.
The developments threaten to derail the Prime Minister’s Brexit strategy ahead of a crucial EU summit, which European Council president Donald Tusk confirmed would take place on November 25, “if nothing extraordinary happens”.
Speaking to reporters outside Parliament, Mr Rees-Mogg said he expected sufficient letters to be submitted to force Mrs May to fight for her position, but declined to say how soon.
If Mrs May was ousted as leader, a contest to choose a successor could be completed “not in months, but weeks”, he said.
He refused to name his preferred successor, but he identified Mr Raab, Ms McVey, Boris Johnson, David Davis and Ms Mordaunt as potential candidates.
“This is nothing to do with the ambition of Brexiteers,” he said. “It is everything to do with the ambition of Brexit for this country.”
Labour said the Government was “falling apart before our eyes”, while Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said Mrs May “appears to be in denial”.
“The facts haven’t changed. There is no majority in Parliament for her deal, and she has rightly conceded that ‘no Brexit’ is the real alternative to it,” said Sir Vince.
“There must now be a People’s Vote to break the deadlock and get the country out of this mess.”
In his letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Raab said he could not accept “an indefinite backstop arrangement” for the Irish border, included in the withdrawal agreement.
He said: “No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime, imposed externally without any democratic control over the laws to be applied, nor the ability to decide to exit the arrangement.”
Ms McVey, who was promoted to the Cabinet by Mrs May in January, was reported to have been close to tears as she tried to force a vote on the Brexit deal in Wednesday’s Cabinet.
In her letter to the PM, the Tatton MP said: “We have gone from no deal is better than a bad deal, to any deal is better than no deal.
“I cannot defend this, and I cannot vote for this deal. I could not look my constituents in the eye were I to do that.”