LONDON — British politics was thrown into chaos and Brexit into doubt Wednesday as Conservative lawmakers triggered a no-confidence vote in Prime Minister Theresa May that will see her removed as party and government leader if she loses.
May vowed to fight the challenge “with everything I’ve got,” after Graham Brady, who heads a committee overseeing Conservative leadership contests, said he had received letters from at least 48 lawmakers asking for a vote.
As a result, he said, “the threshold of 15 per cent of the parliamentary party seeking a vote of confidence in the leader of the Conservative Party has been exceeded.”
Brady said the vote would be held in Parliament between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. London time, with the results expected around 9 p.m. (4 p.m. ET).
The announcement throws Britain’s already rocky path out of the European Union, which it is due to leave in March, into further chaos.
Many Tory lawmakers have been growing angry with May over her handling of Brexit, and the challenge comes days after she postponed a vote to approve a divorce deal with the EU to avoid all-but-certain defeat.
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. If she wins, she can’t be challenged again for a year.
In a defiant statement outside 10 Downing St., 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 cancelled a trip to Dublin to meet Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, to stay in London and battle for lawmakers’ support.
Many supporters of Brexit say May’s deal 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 Cabinet colleagues rallied to May’s support. Home Secretary Sajid 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.”
Justice Secretary David Gauke said: “I think it’s vital for the country that she wins tonight.”
He said that if May lost, “I don’t think we will be leaving the European Union on the 29th of March.”
Here’s a look at how the Conservative Party goes about challenging and changing leaders:
THE NO CONFIDENCE VOTE
A confidence vote in the leader is triggered if 15 per cent of Conservative lawmakers — currently 48 — write a letter to Graham Brady, head of the party’s 1922 Committee of backbenchers. Brady said Wednesday that the threshold had been reached and the vote will be held later in the day.
All 315 Tory legislators can vote on the confidence motion. May needs 158 votes to win — and if she does, there can’t be another challenge for a year.
If she loses, she must resign and a party leadership contest is held in which she is barred from running. All other Conservative lawmakers can run.
THE LEADERSHIP CONTEST IF MAY LOSES
Conservative leadership contests have two parts. After candidates come forward, Conservative lawmakers vote first. The candidate with lowest number of votes drops out and voting continues until there are two contenders left.
The final two candidates are put to a vote of the full party membership across the country.
In the last leadership contest in 2016, members never got to vote because all the candidates dropped out but one: May.
May remains prime minister and party leader until a replacement is chosen. The winner of the vote becomes Conservative leader and prime minister, without the need for a national election.
Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab are the bookmakers’ favourites for the top job if May loses the confidence vote.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Home Secretary Sajid Javid are also considered top contenders.