Theresa May has promised Tory MPs she will step down as prime minister within the next few months in a bid to get Eurosceptics to back her Brexit deal.
The prime minister indicated she would resign only if her Brexit deal passes in order to allow a new leader to shape the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
The dramatic announcement to a meeting of Tory backbenchers prompted dozens of Eurosceptics including Boris Johnson to switch sides in favour of backing her deal. Conservative sources said she could formally announce a leadership contest on 22 May, with a new prime minister in place by July.
The frontrunners will be Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab and Michael Gove, but there is likely to be a wide range of candidates bidding to enter No 10.
May told MPs: “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.”
May did not set a specific date for her departure. However, Conservative MPs said they left the room with the impression that if her deal passes this week, the process of selecting the next Tory leader could kick off as soon as 22 May – the day Britain would then be due to leave the EU, under the extension agreed with the European council in Brussels last week.
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, responded by calling for a general election. “Theresa May’s pledge to Tory MPs to stand down if they vote for her deal shows once and for all that her chaotic Brexit negotiations have been about party management, not principles or the public interest. A change of government can’t be a Tory stitch-up – the people must decide,” he said.
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