Theresa May clinging on as prime minister as Conservative MPs spark open warfare

22 May 2019, 22:37 | Updated: 23 May 2019, 00:52

Theresa May is clinging on to her premiership after furious Conservative MPs granted her some light relief by deciding not to change party rules that could have forced an imminent departure from Downing Street.

Backbench Tories of the 1922 committee held a crunch meeting on Wednesday to discuss whether they could speed up the process of selecting a new leader, with the chief whip rushing in and out of meetings with them and Number 10.

Ministers were said to be at "tipping point" over their willingness to support Mrs May, who has promised she will lay out a timetable for her resignation next month but is keen to avoid a mutinous end to her time in charge.

The committee met after Commons leader Andrea Leadsom became the 36th minister to resign under Mrs May - a move tinged with irony as it was her departure from the last Tory leadership race in 2016 that handed Mrs May victory.

She pulled out after a backlash over a newspaper interview where she appeared to suggest she was better suited to the job because she was a mother.

But her resignation from the government has prompted swathes of fellow MPs to demand Mrs May quit even earlier than planned - and it was open warfare during PMQs as an isolated Mrs May, stood among empty seats on her backbenches and her front bench, was challenged angrily by her own side over several issues.

There was no wall of noise when she arrived in the chamber, even less when she stood to speak, and Labour MPs sat quietly to watch a party usually so good at keeping rivalries behind closed doors openly tear itself to pieces.

Frustration spilled over after a newspaper article suggested Mrs May blocked a chance to ensure British soldiers serving in Northern Ireland would not be prosecuted.

Impassioned responses were met with calm explanation, until the prime minister finally cracked and snapped back at Tory MP Johnny Mercer that her thoughts on the matter should be blatantly obvious by now.

Despite all the anger, the decision of the 1922 committee has provided yet another lifeline for the prime minister, who will meet with the group chairman Sir Graham Brady on Friday.

It means at least another few days of fierce criticism from all corners of her party, with one MP comparing her reluctance to resign immediately to putting a sofa up against the door.

Demands by cabinet ministers for meetings with the prime minister have been shunned, as sources said she might consider talking to her foreign secretary on Thursday.

Another usually loyal MP, chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee Tom Tugendhat, came out publicly to demand she quit, while a junior minister told Sky News: "I just can't trust her anymore."