Theresa May has been warned she could face a fresh leadership challenge within weeks unless she sets out a timetable for her departure.
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, met Mrs May for private talks in Downing Street ahead of a meeting to discuss changing the leadership rules to allow a fresh contest.
Neither Sir Graham nor No 10 would comment on what happened in the meeting.
But a Tory source said Sir Graham warned Mrs May he was under mounting pressure from MPs to find a way to allow another vote of no confidence unless she names an exit date.
‘Graham believes it would be much better if she went on her own terms,’ the source said. ‘He wants her to get a dignified exit.
‘But he is receiving a lot of representations from MPs and the wider party that she must go now. That’s the message he was passing on.’
Theresa May, pictured with her husband Philip on Easter Sunday, faced her ministers today as her own MPs plot to remove her from office
In a further blow to Mrs May, Conservative Central Office was last night informed she could face a symbolic vote on her future by disgruntled local party chairmen.
An ally of Mrs May pointed out that she had already offered to step down this summer if MPs pass her Brexit deal.
How can Tory MPs oust Theresa May?
The Prime Minister fought and won a vote of no confidence in her party leadership in December – meaning she cannot be forced out by party rules.
But demands are mounting this afternoon for the party’s backbench 1922 Committee to call another vote anyway.
The theory is a new secret ballot would allow ministers to join a revolt and produce a landslide vote against Mrs May’s leadership.
Success would be yet another political humiliation piled onto the ailing Prime Minister.
But she has already suffered more indignities than any leader in living memory and carried on regardless – so the plotters cannot be sure it would work.
‘If she can get a deal through Parliament, she will step down,’ they said. ‘This is not someone clinging to office, this is someone trying to do her duty.’ Members of the 1922 Committee’s 18-strong executive met at a secret location in Westminster last night to discuss a possible rule change to allow a new confidence vote.
Mrs May faced a formal vote on December 12 after the number of Tory MPs demanding it rose to 48, the level required to trigger a contest. She won the vote by 200 to 117. The party’s existing rules state that if a leader wins, ‘no vote of confidence shall be called for a period of at least 12 months’.
But Eurosceptic MPs angry at the failure to leave, and Mrs May’s decision to open talks with Jeremy Corbyn, have led to pressure to change the rules.
Under one proposal due to be discussed last night, the ‘grace period’ would be cut to six months, allowing a challenge on June 12.
Nigel Evans, executive secretary of the Committee, yesterday said the process for selecting a new leader ‘can’t start soon enough’.
He said: ‘I believe the only way we’re going to break this impasse properly is if we have fresh leadership of the Conservative Party.’ But other senior figures publicly resisted the idea of a rule change.
Alec Shelbrooke, another member of the committee, said it would only encourage those pressing for a second referendum on Brexit.
‘The idea that if we change the leader, everything changes… the maths in the Commons is still the same,’ he said. ‘We should be concentrating on getting this Brexit deal through so we can leave.’
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A senior 1922 Committee source said: ‘There is deep reluctance on the part of many to start messing with the rules, because that will affect not just this Prime Minister but all future ones as well.’
Conservative MP Nigel Evans (pictured) has abandoned his long-standing support for the PM because of her failure to deliver Brexit
Meanwhile, the Conservative Home website last night reported that 65 Tory chairmen had now signed a petition calling for an extraordinary general meeting of the party’s National Convention to discuss Mrs May’s future. The number hits the threshold required for a meeting.
Dinah Glover, who started the petition, said: ‘We hope the Prime Minister will recognise that she is unfortunately no longer the solution to the problem, but is actually the block to Brexit.
Mrs May is planning to bring her Brexit deal back for another vote – even as Tory MPs plan to change the rules of their party’s leadership elections so they can oust her.
The Prime Minister is holding cross-party talks with Labour in an attempt to find a Brexit compromise which will win the support of a majority of MPs.
But they appear to be faltering, and if they fail the Prime Minister could try and bring her Brexit deal back.
Mrs May’s official spokesman also suggested Labour is dragging its feet over the Brexit talks and said: ‘There have been difficulties in some areas such as timetabling of the negotiations’, adding: ‘Progress needs to be made urgently’.
He added: ‘Every day that parliament doesn’t ratify the withdrawal agreement, the harder it will be to avoid the European parliamentary elections, and the prime minister has made clear that she doesn’t believe it is in the country’s interests to take part in those elections’.
Theresa May, pictured at church on Easter Sunday with her husband Philip, could face pressure from backbench Conservative MPs to name a departure date
At the same time, it emerged that Tory Party bosses will be forced to hold an emergency conference of grassroots members after 70 local party chairmen signed a petition designed to force the PM from office.
Although they can’t force Mrs May out, such a vote would intensify the pressure on her. After enjoying a week’s walking holiday in Wales, the PM will pin her hopes on cross-party talks with Labour to secure a Brexit deal.
Arriving for cross-party talks at the Cabinet Office, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: ‘We are resuming the discussions with the Government this afternoon about Brexit and we are obviously looking forward to hearing their position on some of the key issues where there are some fundamental issues between us.
‘We’ve been exchanging correspondence with the Government but now we want to know what is their position on the issues that remain between us. We look forward to hearing what they have to say this afternoon.’
Sir Keir was accompanied by shadow chancellor John McDonnell, shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey and shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman.
The Mail understands there were no formal meetings between the two sides last week, with discussions limited to ‘positions exchanged on paper and email’.