Conservative lawmakers in Britain will hold a vote of non-confidence on Prime Minister Theresa May's leadership that would see her removed as party and government leader if she loses, throwing U.K. politics deeper into crisis and Brexit further into doubt.
May vowed to fight for the leadership of her party and the country "with everything I've got" after opponents, who have been circling for weeks, finally got the numbers they needed to spark a secret-ballot vote among Conservative Party lawmakers.
The threat to May has been building as pro-Brexit lawmakers within the Conservative Party grew increasingly frustrated with May's conduct of Brexit and the divorce deal she has agreed with the European Union.
The challenge throws Britain's already rocky path out of the EU, which it is due to leave in March, into further chaos. It comes days after May postponed a vote to approve the divorce deal to avoid all-but-certain defeat in the House.
Many supporters of Brexit say May's deal, a compromise that retains close economic ties with the EU, fails to deliver on the clean break with the bloc that they want.
Former environment secretary Owen Paterson accused May of acting like a "supplicant" in dealings with the EU.
"She's not the person to see Brexit through," he said.
Leading pro-Brexit legislators Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker said in a joint statement that "in the national interest, she must go."
But in a defiant statement outside 10 Downing Street, May said "a change of leadership in the Conservative Party now will put our country's future at risk."
She said ousting her and holding a leadership vote — a process that could take weeks — could result in Brexit being delayed or even stopped.
May, who spent Tuesday touring EU capitals to appeal for changes to sweeten the divorce deal for reluctant U.K. lawmakers, has until Jan. 21 to hold a vote on her deal in Parliament, a timetable that could be scuttled if she is ousted.
On Wednesday morning, Graham Brady, who heads a committee overseeing Conservative leadership contests, said he had received letters from at least 48 lawmakers asking for a vote. That's the 15 per cent of Conservative legislators, the number needed to spark a vote under party rules.
Brady said the vote would be held in Parliament between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. GMT on Wednesday evening (1 p.m. and 3 p.m. ET), with the results announced soon after.
If she loses the confidence vote, May must step down and there will be a contest to choose a new leader. She will remain leader and prime minister until the successor is picked. But if she wins, she can't be challenged again for a year.
Brady said that the party aimed to finish the first stage of any leadership contest — in which lawmakers vote to whittle down the field of contenders to two — before Parliament breaks for Christmas on Dec. 20. The final two contenders would then be put to the nationwide party membership in a postal ballot.
May cancelled a trip to Dublin to meet Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, to stay in London and battle for lawmakers' support. She planned to address backbench lawmakers just before the leadership ballot opens.
May, a 62-year-old vicar's daughter who voted to remain in the EU, won the top job in the turmoil that followed the 2016 EU referendum but promised to implement Brexit, while keeping close ties to the bloc, as a way to heal a divided country.
If all Tory lawmakers cast ballots, May needs 158 votes to win, though a narrow victory could leave her weakened and under pressure to resign. But allies said May would stay in post even if she secured a wafer-thin win.
Pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit demonstrators shout at each other opposite the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)
At least 153 of her 315 Conservative lawmakers have expressed public support for her.
"I think she needs to win by one," said International Trade Secretary Liam Fox.
Several leading Brexiteers, including former foreign secretary Boris Johnson and ex-Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, have said loudly that they think they could get a better deal with the EU, and they are likely to enter a race to replace her.
More conciliatory candidates, including Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, are also possible contenders.
Ahead of the vote, cabinet colleagues rallied to May's support.
Javid tweeted that a leadership contest, with Brexit little more than three months away, "will be seen as self-indulgent and wrong. PM has my full support and is best person to ensure we leave EU on 29 March."
'We need no distractions'
Justice Secretary David Gauke said: "I think it's vital for the country that she wins tonight."
If May loses, "I don't think we will be leaving the European Union on the 29th of March," he said.
Former prime minister David Cameron, who called the Brexit referendum and resigned after voters elected to leave the EU, also weighed in ahead of the vote.
Brexit is Britain's most significant political and economic decision since the Second World War, though 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 the unity of the United Kingdom, and determine whether London can keep its place as one of the top two global financial centres.
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