May in crisis talks with MPs, Brexiteers

UK Prime Minister Theresa May is struggling to keep her Brexit plan alive and her grip on power.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May is struggling to keep her Brexit plan alive and her grip on power.

British Prime Minister Theresa May held crisis talks with senior colleagues and hardline Brexiteers, trying to breathe life into her twice-defeated European divorce deal after reports her cabinet was plotting to topple her.

May called rebel MPs including Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees Mogg and Steve Baker to her Chequers residence on Sunday, Downing Street said.

Ministers David Lidington and Michael Gove also met with May, both denying reports they were being lined up as possible caretaker prime ministers.

"The meeting discussed a range of issues, including whether there is sufficient support in the Commons to bring back a meaningful vote (for her deal) this week," a spokesman said.

May was told by Brexiteers at the meeting that she must set out a timetable to leave office if she wants to get her deal ratified, Buzzfeed reporter Alex Wickham said on Twitter.

The UK's exit from the European Union was already slipping from May's weakened grasp as she struggled to increase support for her deal and parliament prepared to grab control of Brexit in coming days.

At one of the most important junctures for Britain since World War II, politics was at fever pitch. Almost three years since the 2016 referendum it remains unclear how, when or if Brexit will ever take place.

With May humiliated and weakened, ministers publicly downplayed any immediate threat to her leadership, insisting she is still in control and the best option is for parliament to ratify her Brexit deal.

Illustrating the high stakes, the Sunday Times reported that senior ministers were plotting a "coup" against May.

The newspaper said 11 unidentified ministers agreed May should stand down, warning she has become a toxic and erratic figure whose judgement has "gone haywire".

But two potential candidates to replace her denied such ambitions.

"I think (she) is doing a fantastic job," Lidington said.

"One thing that working closely with the prime minister does is cure you completely of any lingering shred of ambition to want to do that task," he quipped.

Gove also downplayed the possibility of ousting May: "I think it is not the time to change the captain of the ship."

Finance Minister Philip Hammond, too, said a change of prime minister would not break the impasse, though he acknowledged it may be impossible for parliament to back May's plan.

"If that is the case then parliament will have to decide not just what it's against but what it is for," he told Sky News.

That opens an array of possibilities including a much softer divorce than May had intended, a second plebiscite, a revocation of the Article 50 divorce papers, or even an election.

Brexit had been due to happen on March 29 before May secured a delay in talks with the EU.

Now a departure date of May 22 will apply if parliament passes May's deal. If she fails, Britain will have until April 12 to offer a new plan or decide to leave without a treaty.

Australian Associated Press