'Close allies' of May start to flee sinking Brexit ship
Two members of the British government are resigning and a cabinet minster is mulling whether to quit over Brexit this weekend, as Theresa May's administration appears to be disintegrating ahead of the most important vote of a generation.
Conservative Party whips have given Conservative MPs until lunchtime today to set out how they will vote on May's Brexit deal, in a desperate bid to judge the scale of a rebellion that threatens to bring down her government.
Yesterday Will Quince, an MP and a member of the UK defence secretary's ministerial team, announced he was quitting his government role, saying he wants to "implore the prime minister to go back to the European Union and find another way".
Sources say a second parliamentary private secretary has told whips they will quit tomorrow, while a number of senior party figures were "wrestling with decisions".
More resignations are possible, with leading Brexiteer Penny Mordaunt said to be deciding over the next 48 hours whether to back the deal or quit in what one minister described as "the week of unknowns".
In a clear indication that Britain could be on the verge of a re-alignment of politics along Remain/Leave lines, as many as 100 MPs - including 35 Tory MPs - are prepared to publish a motion calling for a vote on the terms of the UK's exit immediately after May's deal is voted down on Tuesday. The amendment will be attached to any attempt by May to bring back her deal for a second vote in the House of Commons.
May's leadership rivals are preparing to move quickly if she resigns next week, with Boris Johnson leading the pack, and Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt plotting to run on a joint ticket.
Boris Johnson, David Davis and Priti Patel yesterday spoke to Tory activists at the party's National Conservative Convention - effectively a "beauty parade" of future leaders. One supporter of Johnson said: "I have never seen him so focused."
Another MP said Johnson has lost weight in recent weeks and was like Aslan in CS Lewis's Narnia books, saying: "The era of the ice queen is over. The thaw is coming."
May spent yesterday in her Maidenhead constituency followed by what was described as a "private event" at Chequers. No early meeting of her cabinet has been scheduled for tomorrow.
Officially, Downing Street continued to insist yesterday that the meaningful vote on Britain's exit from the EU would go ahead on Tuesday, with one official saying they were "100 per cent" certain that the vote will be held.
Pressure was mounting on May, who has been unkindly referred to as "Theresa the Freezer", after she failed to tell cabinet at a meeting last Thursday what her plans were if - as expected - MPs vote down her deal. One Tory MP said May had to rediscover the passion she showed after being snubbed by EU leaders at the Salzburg summit, saying: "She needs to get out her Maggie Thatcher handbag and start using it."
But a final ruling from the European Court of Justice is expected tomorrow to say the UK will be allowed to delay Brexit from March 29 without asking permission from the other member states.
Andrew Mitchell, a former Tory chief whip, became the 105th Conservative MP to oppose the deal, saying that May's strategy of going ahead with the vote "appears to have as its inspiration the Charge of the Light Brigade".
However friends of both UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson and Penny Mordaunt are, behind the scenes, urging May to delay the vote to stave off a crushing defeat and the prospect of more resignations.
Government officials are concerned that Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party or the SNP will use Tuesday's likely defeat to table a vote of no confidence.
A headcount of MPs who are allowed to vote has the Tories losing by a single MP if the DUP deserts them. This means the Tories will have 14 days to win a confidence vote, probably under a new leader, or face a general election early in the New Year.