PM May pledges to quit before next UK election as she fights leadership challenge

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May promised on Wednesday to step down before the next parliamentary election due in 2022, hoping to win over wavering lawmakers before a no confidence vote triggered by Brexiteers in her Conservative Party.

Less than four months before Britain is due to leave the European Union on March 29, the country’s exit is in chaos with options ranging from a potentially disorderly “no-deal” departure to another referendum that could reverse it.

At a closed meeting with her lawmakers before they were due to decide her fate, May announced she would not take the party into the next election due four years from now.

“She did say she wouldn’t be fighting the next general election,” work and pensions minister Amber Rudd told reporters. “It was quite emotional the way she put it, she said in my heart I wanted to do that but now I recognise that I am not going to.”

The Conservative lawmakers are casting their votes in the confidence ballot from 1800 GMT in a parliamentary committee room. An announcement is due at 2100 GMT.

May could be toppled if a simple majority of 317 Conservative members of parliament (MPs) vote against her, though a large rebellion could also leave her fatally weakened.

At least 198 indicated public support for her and one bookmaker put the likelihood she would win at 89 percent.

The numbers will be significant, and will also indicate the level of opposition in the ruling party to the Brexit deal she has negotiated with Brussels.

“If much more than 100 MPs vote against her then I think she is going to be struggling to remain for very long and would find it difficult to get that deal through the House of Commons,” said polling expert John Curtice.

Brexit is Britain’s most significant political and economic decision since World War Two. Pro-Europeans fear the departure will weaken the West as it grapples with the presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.

The outcome will shape Britain’s $2.8 trillion economy, have far reaching consequences for UK unity and determine whether London keeps its place as one of the top two global financial centres.

The British pound rose to $1.2652 on bets that May would keep her job.

SCHISM OVER EUROPE

Division over Europe among the Conservatives helped bring down all three of the party’s previous premiers – David Cameron, John Major and Margaret Thatcher. Now, May’s fate also hangs on Britain’s often tempestuous relationship with Europe, by far its biggest trading partner.

May, who voted to remain in the EU in a 2016 referendum, told opponents of her withdrawal deal – struck after two years of negotiations – that if they toppled her, then Brexit would be delayed or stopped.

“A change of leadership in the Conservative Party now would put our country’s future at risk and create uncertainty when we can least afford it,” she said. “I stand ready to finish the job.”

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, London, Britain, December 12, 2018. Parliament TV handout via REUTERS

May said a new leader would not have time to renegotiate Brexit and secure parliamentary approval by the end of March, meaning the Article 50 withdrawal notice would have to be extended or rescinded.

BREXIT CHAOS

May, a 62-year-old daughter of a Church of England priest, won the top job in the turmoil that followed the EU referendum but promised to implement Brexit, while keeping close ties to the bloc, to heal a divided nation.

But on Monday she called off a parliamentary vote on her deal – which seeks to keep Britain closely aligned with the EU after the exit – to avoid a humiliating defeat.

Her trade minister, Liam Fox, said the government might not even put it to a vote unless the EU gave more reassurances on the Irish “backstop”, an insurance policy aimed at preventing border controls on the island of Ireland.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said the 27 other EU members would not change the deal.

Pro-Brexit hardliners say May has betrayed the people’s vote in negotiations, while other critics say she struck a deal that is the worst of all worlds – leaving Britain out of the EU but with no say over rules it has to abide by.

“Theresa May’s plan would bring down the government if carried forward,” eurosceptic lawmakers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker said in a statement. “Conservatives must now answer whether they wish to draw ever closer to an election under Mrs May’s leadership. In the national interest, she must go.”

Ministers said changing leader at such an important moment in British history was folly. “I am absolutely sure the prime minister will win,” said Michael Gove, the most senior Brexiteer in May’s government.

Slideshow (10 Images)

But if the deal fails in parliament and Brexit is not delayed, Britain could be heading towards a disorderly exit that investors fear will clog the arteries of trade, dislocate supply chains and upset markets.

“We are working hard to make sure we get an orderly Brexit,” said Merkel, the EU’s most powerful leader.

Additional reporting by Kate Holton, Andy Bruce, Paul Sandle, Andy MacAskill, Ben Martin and Costas Pitas; Writing by Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Mark Heinrich and David Stamp

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