Prime Minister Theresa May said today that she will contest an imminent vote of no confidence in her leadership ‘with everything I have got.’
She issued a defiant message to Tory rebels outside 10 Downing Street after it was confirmed that the 48 letters necessary to trigger a vote had been received.
This is the magic number that must be submitted to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the back bench 1922 committee, to commence the secret ballot of Tory MPs.
The vote is expected to take place tonight between 6-8pm with the result known shortly afterwards.
If Mrs May loses, an immediate leadership contest would be held in which she would be unable to stand.
But if she wins, rebels would not be able to organise another no confidence vote for 12 months, giving the Prime Minister time to try and get her Brexit deal approved.
Mrs May said today that if she was ousted, her replacement would have to extend or scrap Article 50, resulting in Brexit being delayed or reversed.
The Article 50 declaration was issued in March last year and gave two years notice of the UK’s intention to leave the EU.
The Prime Minister said changing the leader now would ‘put our country’s future at risk and create uncertainty when we can least afford it.’
She added: “A leadership election would not change the fundamentals of the negotiation or the Parliamentary arithmetic.
“Weeks spent tearing ourselves apart will only create more division just as we should be standing together to serve our country.
“None of that would be in the national interest. “I have devoted myself unsparingly to these tasks ever since I became prime minister and I stand ready to finish the job.”
Mrs May, who cancelled yesterday’s Parliamentary vote on her Brexit withdrawal deal to avoid a defeat, said new talks with EU leaders were ‘making progress.’
She needs to get a clear majority of Tory MPs to win tonight’s ballot, but if she does so by a slim margin, there could be pressure for her to step down.
Even if she is ousted, Mrs May would be likely to remain in place as a caretaker Prime Minister for at least a month while a new leader is chosen.
A number of senior Tories would be expected to enter any leadership race and if so two candidates would be chosen in a series of votes to face off for the top job.
Former minister Owen Patterson, one of the 48 MPs who submitted a letter, said he had done so because her deal could trigger an election if it passed.
He added: “If it did get through the House of Commons, she would lose the support of the DUP, which triggers a general election.”
Justice Secretary David Gauke told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he was ‘disappointed’ that the 48 letters had gone in and was backing Mrs May.
He warned: “If she loses tonight whoever is Prime Minister will have to delay Article 50. I cannot see how we can possibly leave on March 29.”
More than 100 Tory MPs took to Twitter this morning to criticise the rebels and express their backing for Mrs May.
Sir Graham Brady, who will oversee the vote, notified Mrs May of the challenge last night and said that she was ‘keen that matters be resolved as quickly as possible.’
Mrs May has been on a tour of European capitals in an attempt to secure changes to the Irish backstop proposals in her deal, a major sticking point for its opponents.
She was due to meet Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Dublin today but cancelled it to concentrate on the leadership challenge.