Government shelves key Brexit bill amid speculation over Theresa May's future

23 May 2019, 11:12 | Updated: 23 May 2019, 15:00

The government has delayed publication of key Brexit legislation as the prime minister listens to MPs' "concerns" about the bill.

Theresa May had told MPs the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) would be published on Friday, but the government now plans to publish the legislation in the week commencing 3 June.

It comes amid feverish speculation the prime minister could imminently announce her resignation, with Mrs May due to hold a crunch meeting with the leader of Tory backbenchers tomorrow.

Anger among Conservative MPs at the terms of the WAB, which puts the prime minister's Brexit deal into law, has prompted renewed calls for Mrs May's departure.

Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom resigned from cabinet on Wednesday evening, after telling the prime minister she couldn't support the bill.

Tory whip Mark Spencer, who stood in for the departed Ms Leadsom at the House of Commons' weekly business statement on Thursday, suggested a planned debate and vote on the bill could also be delayed.

He told MPs: "We'd hoped to hold second reading on Friday 7 June and at the moment we've not secured agreement to this in the usual channels."

Mr Spencer said the government would provide an update to MPs on the fate of the legislation when the House of Commons returns from an 11-day break on 4 June.

What is in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill?

:: Attempt to find alternative arrangements to replace Irish border backstop by December 2020
:: If that fails, Britain will stay aligned with Northern Ireland
:: Future relationship objectives to be approved by MPs
:: Workers' rights and border checks rules on goods to keep pace with EU
:: Environmental protections to be retained and improved
:: Seek as close to frictionless trade as possible
:: MPs to get vote on customs compromise and second EU referendum

A Labour source claimed Mr Spencer's reasoning for the government possibly delaying the bill's second reading was a "smokescreen" and pointed out that ministers control Commons business.

They attacked the government's failure to publish the bill this week as a broken promise and said they would expect a two-day debate on the legislation when it is introduced, adding: "It's an issue of massive constitutional significance."

The prime minister will be meeting cabinet ministers to discuss the WAB on Thursday with a permanent replacement for Ms Leadsom also due to be announced, Downing Street revealed.

Mrs May's official spokesman said: "The prime minister is listening to colleagues' concerns about the bill and will continue to."

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is among those ministers meeting Mrs May, but remained tight-lipped over what they would discuss.

However, despite the speculation over her leadership, Mr Hunt insisted the prime minister would still be in place for the visit of US President Donald Trump on 3 June.

He said: "Theresa May will be prime minister to welcome him and rightly so."

Meanwhile, asked if she could follow Ms Leadsom in quitting the cabinet, Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt told reporters on Thursday morning: "I've given my advice to Number 10 and today I'm going to be getting on with my job which is to keep the country safe and to look after our armed forces."

Mrs May has agreed to meet with Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the Conservative Party's 1922 committee, on Friday where she will be expected to announce a specific timetable for her departure.

The executive of the 1922 committee, which arranges Tory leadership contests, held a ballot on Wednesday on whether to change party rules to allow Mrs May to face another confidence vote among MPs, despite her having survived one last December.

The vote results will be held in sealed envelopes to be opened on Friday if Mrs May doesn't announce her departure date at her meeting with Sir Graham.

Asked what would happen if Mrs May did not announce a resignation date, 1922 committee treasurer Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said: "I think there will be overwhelming pressure for the '22 to change the rules and hold a ballot on confidence in the prime minister."