By Paul Waugh
Theresa May has earned a temporary reprieve from Tory MPs after she made an “emotional” plea for party unity over her handling of Brexit.
The Prime Minister faced some critical questions from Brexiteers at a packed meeting of the backbench 1922 Committee, but was largely warmly received as she pledged to get the right deal on the UK’s exit from the EU.
Following the much-anticipated gathering in the House of Commons, former Home Secretary Amber Rudd claimed that the PM had “won the room”, while her predecessor Sajid Javid added it was “a very positive statement”.
Several backbenchers expressed their disgust at recent “anonymous and misogynist” briefings against May, Rudd said.
Another backbencher said: “If that was meant to be a show trial followed by a pushing overboard: it didn’t match up to that.”
However, while she won the approval of many MPs present, one former minister added a note of caution: “The PM leads a brilliantly united party – at least this evening.”
And another senior figure told HuffPost UK: “It doesn’t change the underlying mood. She’s still at teeter point. It’s 50:50 whether she gets through the next week.”
With several Brexit-backing MPs still unhappy with May’s compromise plans, Westminster has been awash with speculation that she is perilously close to facing a motion of confidence from her party.
Under Tory rules, a total of 48 MPs are required to write letters demanding such a vote. Only 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady knows how many letters have already been submitted.
One anonymous MP said at the weekend that May should ‘bring a noose’ to the meeting, while another talked about knifing her in the front.
At the meeting on Wednesday night, May told her backbenchers that she was negotiating on behalf of the entire UK and needed party unity to ensure she had the best case in talks with Brussels.
A total of five Brexiteers asked critical questions, including Nadine Dorries, Philip Davies, Steve Baker, Sir Edward Leigh and Andrew Bridgen.
Dorries asked if senior Brexit civil servant Olly Robbins had been negotiating an extra transition period without political permission, to which May replied that he had negotiated options with ministerial oversight.
Baker and Leigh asked what would happen under a ‘no deal’ scenario, demanding a ‘cast-iron guarantee’ that Brexit would not be delayed. May promised the UK would leave the EU as expected on March 29, 2019.
Bridgen, who has made clear that he wants the PM to quit, asked her to list three concessions she had wrung out of Brussels since the talks began. Among the examples she listed was that UK courts would have supremacy over European courts.
But the most pointed question of the night came from Davies, who asked May whether the 17 million people who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum would recognise what they voted for when they saw her Brexit deal.
May replied that they would, but suggested that they would also see a Brexit that protected the economy from the more difficult ‘consequences’ of leaving the EU.
Her reply was seen as a fresh defence of her ‘Chequers’ compromise plan to protect jobs by keeping some EU rules.
Rudd said May had emerged in a stronger position after the meeting. “She spoke quite emotionally about why she was doing this for the good of the country and how it was important that the public and our party members realised we were behind her and that we all wanted the same thing,” she said.
“She looked like she really meant it. She wasn’t reading from a script, she was talking frankly and honestly from the heart about she was doing this and why it mattered. This was very earnest, and it felt listening to her, very heartfelt. It was emotional and personal.”
Former minister Bob Neill told the PM that he had a message from a constituent who offered their ‘emphatic’ support because she had secured Gibraltar’s rights post-Brexit.
Backbencher Michael Fabricant said that far from entering the ‘Lion’s Den’, May had been subjected to “a love-in”. “It was like a petting zoo, it was really lovely. She lives to fight on. If she gets a good deal, she’ll be a heroine.”
He added: “Nobody knows how many letters sent to Sir Graham Brady, and he’s told others that not even his wife knows. All this talk that there are 46 in, nobody knows.”