David Davis has told Tory MPs they should trigger a leadership contest to topple Theresa May unless she drops her Brexit plan this week, The Independent can reveal.
The former Brexit secretary wants the prime minister to be presented with an ultimatum that her party will seek to remove her if she refuses to budge before Wednesday’s crunch EU summit.
If she stands firm, Tory MPs will immediately trigger a leadership contest by sending in the required 48 letters calling for a vote of confidence in her, he is warning ministers.
The dramatic ramping-up of pressure on Ms May – to switch to seeking a looser, Canada-style trade deal – comes as the chances of a breakthrough in the Brexit talks over the next few days faded.
Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, suddenly arrived in the Belgian capital for face-to-face talks with Michel Barnier, the EU’s negotiator, prompting a flurry of excitement that a deal was close.
But Mr Raab went home within hours and Mr Barnier tweeted that “despite intense efforts, some key issues are still open”, in particular how the proposed “backstop” can guarantee no new hard border in Ireland.
It appeared that no further talks would be held between officials before the summit, when the prime minister will issue a make-or-break appeal directly to fellow EU leaders to save the negotiations.
Now The Independent understands that Mr Davis has told friends: “If she doesn’t move, the Tory party will lose its patience. They will put the 48 letters in calling for a leadership election.”
Back home, the prime minister’s troubles deepened as:
* Up to nine cabinet ministers, including Mr Mundell, prepared to challenge the prime minister’s backstop plan at a meeting on Tuesday
* The number of letters calling for the vote of confidence, sent to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, was reported to have reached 44 – just four short of the total needed
* A cabinet minister admitted Ms May will not insist on an “end date” for the UK staying in the EU customs territory – increasing the risk of resignations on Tuesday
* The EU said it would stage a no-deal Brexit summit in November, to prepare for the UK crashing out of the bloc, unless the UK delivered decisive progress this week
The growing Brexiteer revolt appeared to have succeeded in preventing Ms May signing off on a weekend agreement that could lock the UK into the EU’s customs territory indefinitely.
Cabinet ministers fear that, without a legal end date, the EU will be left to decide whether as-yet-unproven technology has produced an alternative solution to avoid the need for border checks in Ireland.
And that in turn would leave the UK unable to sign its own trade deals for years to come – to Leave supporters, a key prize of Brexit.
Until now, Mr Davis has insisted he is campaigning to “change the plan, rather the prime minister”, heaping praise on Ms May when he resigned in July.
However, a switch to seeking a Canada-style trade deal – unless accompanied by an Irish backstop – would be rejected immediately by EU and would almost certainly collapse the talks altogether.
The 69-year-old Mr Davis is not interested in being a caretaker prime minister who would finalise a deal with the EU and then stand down, The Independent understands.
He has told friends: “I have had five people this week contacting me and trying to get me to run. Some are saying they want an interim prime minister, but nobody wants to be an interim prime minister.
“It wouldn’t work. You would be a lame duck from day one. We need a powerful prime minister to lead the negotiations.”
However, Mr Davis is also confident he could beat Boris Johnson in a leadership contest. “Boris is easy,” he joked to friends. “The battle is never between favourites.”