Conservative MPs expect Theresa May to resign or be forced out of office within days, as the cabinet turned on the prime minister and support evaporated for her latest Brexit proposals.
In a fresh blow to Mrs May’s fragile leadership, Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons and a prominent Leave campaigner, resigned from the government on Wednesday evening saying she could no longer accept Mrs May’s Brexit deal.
She said the possibility of a second EU referendum raised this week by the prime minister would be “dangerously divisive” and made clear her opposition to the revamped EU withdrawal agreement bill that Mrs May plans to put to parliament.
“I considered carefully the timing of this decision, but I cannot fulfil my duty as leader of the House tomorrow, to announce a bill with new elements that I fundamentally oppose.”
Mrs Leadsom’s resignation capped a torrid day for Mrs May in Westminster after growing anger from senior ministers and backbench Tory MPs over her attempt to persuade Labour to back her Brexit deal by offering the prospect of a second referendum.
On the eve of the European Parliament elections, several cabinet ministers warned Downing Street they could not vote for the withdrawal agreement bill without substantial changes.
With her party facing a wipeout in Thursday’s poll — some opinion surveys put the Conservatives in fifth place — Mrs May is under huge pressure to resign or face a putsch by backbench Tory MPs.
Mrs May refused to meet home secretary Sajid Javid, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and Scotland secretary David Mundell on Wednesday as she gathered her inner team for fraught discussions on whether she should fight on.
The three ministers were expected to ask her to remove the prospect of a second Brexit referendum from the withdrawal agreement bill. “She’s not playing by the rules any more. It is incredible how she just avoided the cabinet acting against her by just not meeting them,” said one senior Tory.
One official close to cabinet said that some ministers were “purely concerned with the content” of the withdrawal agreement bill, while others were looking for her to abandon plans to put the legislation to a vote in early June and instead announce her resignation
But Mrs May told the Commons it was her “duty” to try to persuade MPs to back the bill, claiming that if her deal was defeated for a fourth time there was a danger Brexit would not happen. She admitted that her time in office was almost over.
“In time, another prime minister will be standing at this despatch box,” she said. “But while I am here I have a duty to be clear with the House about the facts. If we are going to deliver Brexit in this parliament we are going to have to pass a withdrawal agreement bill.”
The executive of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservatives MPs met twice on Wednesday, but ultimately decided against suspending the party’s rule book to allow an immediate challenge to Mrs May’s leadership.
The committee decided in principle to change the rules if Mrs May had not resigned by mid-June, according to one Tory grandee.
Graham Brady, chair of the committee, said he would meet Mrs May on Friday following the European elections. Further consultations will then take place with senior MPs.
“Brady will meet the prime minister. We’re hoping she will resign before then — and if not, we’ll have no choice left but to consider changing the rules,” said a member of the 1922 executive.
Ben Bradley, a Eurosceptic Tory MP, said: “One way or the other I think this is inevitably the end for the prime minister, delayed only by the European election . . .
“As far as I can see the mood is almost unanimously that there is no point bringing this deal forward and she should go this week.”
Some Conservative MPs expressed their frustration that Mrs May had not resigned on Wednesday. Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader, said: “The sofa is up against the door, she’s not leaving.” Another Conservative said: “The can has been kicked down the road again.”
Steve Baker, a leading Eurosceptic Tory who has called for Mrs May to resign, said: “People are rather impatient. But equally I think most colleagues appreciate this is a very difficult time for everybody on the  executive and this is after all the eve of the poll in a national election.”