Theresa May’s signal to Conservative MPs that she intended to step down as prime minister before the next general election was a move intended to help save her job. But it also ensured the race for the Conservative party leadership was under way whatever the outcome of Wednesday’s confidence vote.
Mrs May’s allies said she did not intend to fight another election, reversing her insistence last year that she was “in this for the long term” and that she was eyeing a poll scheduled for 2022.
Nick Boles, a former minister, said Mrs May was “crystal clear” about her intentions. “She will not lead the Conservative Party into the next general election,” he said.
Other MPs came away with a more nuanced interpretation. The prime minister told the room that she would — in theory — love to have led the party into the 2022 general election, but recognised that this would cause concerns among colleagues. “It was not the clear promise that many MPs had hoped for,” said one minister.
Speculation at Westminster nevertheless immediately focused on who would succeed Mrs May in a potentially crowded contest, with Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid and Michael Gove among the early frontrunners. Others include Jeremy Hunt, Amber Rudd and Matt Hancock.
Speaking ahead of Mrs May’s address to MPs, her spokesman said of the confidence vote: “This vote isn’t about who leads the party into the next election but whether it makes sense to change leader at this stage in the Brexit negotiations.”
Her allies confirmed that Mrs May hoped to deliver Brexit and then some of her domestic agenda, addressing “burning injustices” in society. She also did not tell MPs exactly when she intended to step down.
Under Mrs May’s plan, she would oversee Britain’s departure from the EU in March 2019 and then carry on for a little longer, possibly into 2020.
Her move was intended partly to win the support of likely Tory leadership contenders in the confidence vote: they now know that they will not have to wait long for a tilt at the crown.
It will also reassure Tory MPs who favour a soft Brexit that they will not have to wait long for a leadership contest, but that Mrs May will do the dirty work of finalising her compromise exit deal before handing over the party to her successor.
“It’s what most people wanted to hear,” said one ally of the prime minister, although many Tory MPs are sceptical about whether Mrs May’s promises can any longer be relied upon. “Trust has broken down,” said one.
The prime minister promised not to hold an election in 2017 shortly before calling the disastrous poll that culminated in the Tories losing their Commons majority.
Most recently she insisted that she would put her Brexit deal to a crunch Commons vote on Monday, before pulling it at the last minute because she faced almost certain defeat with strong opposition from Conservative MPs as well as opposition parties.
David Jones, a Eurosceptic former minister, said of Mrs May’s plan to step down before the next election: “It looks weak and it also looks desperate. It’s an extraordinary thing to say.”
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