Hunt Urges Tories Not to Challenge PM May Until Brexit Done

(Bloomberg) -- Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned grassroots activists in his Conservative Party not to try to depose Prime Minister Theresa May, arguing that a leadership contest would only delay Brexit.

The beleaguered premier, who survived a confidence vote by members of Parliament in December, is set to face the judgment of local party leaders and other members at a special meeting of their National Convention -- described as “the parliament of the voluntary party” -- potentially in June.

Hunt Urges Tories Not to Challenge PM May Until Brexit Done

“The difficulty that Theresa May has is far more a function of the fact it’s a hung Parliament rather than any decision she’s taken,” Hunt told BBC Radio on Tuesday, referring to the government’s lack of majority. “Just changing the leader doesn’t actually change the parliamentary arithmetic. So, I think, what it would do is create delay in the process and mean that we will have another period of time through which we have Brexit paralysis.”

May was told Monday by Andrew Sharpe, chairman of the convention, that more than 10 percent of chairmen and women of local Conservative parties had signed a petition calling for her to go -- meeting the threshold for an emergency meeting, the Sun newspaper reported.

Tory activists and lawmakers angry at May’s handling of Brexit have been looking for ways to remove her from office as her premiership has lurched from crisis to crisis. The party’s constitution doesn’t allow another challenge by MPs until December -- a year after their last attempt -- forcing activists to take the issue into their own hands.

The petition, backed by more than 70 local party leaders according to organizers, says that “we no longer feel Mrs. May is the right person to continue as prime minister to lead us forward” in Brexit negotiations. It goes on to say that the signatories “ask therefore that she considers her position and resigns.”

May’s office played down the significance of the proposed meeting, saying any vote would not be binding and, in any case, it is not clear if it would be passed. There will also have to be a 28-day delay before any such gathering is held.

But while May would not be required to quit by the party’s constitution if she lost such a vote, it would make it harder for her to meet her pledge to remain as prime minister until Brexit is delivered.

Brexiteer Rebellion

The prime minister has failed three times to get the divorce deal she reached with the European Union through Parliament -- in part because it is opposed by hardline Brexiteers in her own party -- and has faced a growing backlash from rank-and-file members.

Activists have refused to campaign for the party, and some have even said they will vote for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in European Parliament elections scheduled for May 23. The government is still hoping to avoid taking part in the polls, which became necessary when May agreed to delay Brexit until Oct. 31, but is unlikely to get the Brexit divorce deal ratified in time.

Hunt urged the party to stick with May to get Brexit over the line, saying he was sure the U.K. would leave the EU with a deal. Talks with the Labour Party are “progressing,” he said, noting that the opposition also faces a backlash from voters in Leave-voting areas if Brexit is not delivered.

“What our voters are saying is they want this to be resolved,” he said. “They don’t want the shadow of not knowing which direction we’re going in the country to go on, and they will look very, very angrily at all of us in all parties at the ballot box if we have not resolved the Brexit issue.”

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