Defiant Theresa May 'vows to face down' any Tory leadership challenge
Theresa May has vowed to see off any leadership challenge that comes her way as she prepares for a potentially explosive Cabinet Brexit meeting on Friday.
As backbench Tories turned up the heat ahead of the crunch Chequers summit this week, Mrs May has reportedly told aides she will stay on even if she won any challenge to her leadership "by one vote".
The signatures of forty-eight MPs would be needed to trigger a vote of no confidence in the Tory leader. But the Sunday Times reports that Mrs May will refuse to step aside unless 159 Conservative MPs - more than half of those in Parliament - vote against her.
A senior Tory told the paper: "Theresa thinks that if there is a vote of no confidence she has to win by only one vote. It’s effectively saying to people, ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’."
The defiant message to her party came as 36 Tory MPs piled pressure on the Prime Minister to "get tough" with the European Union ahead of Friday's Chequers meeting.
The summit will bring the Cabinet together in a bid to thrash out crucial details of the UK's future relationship with the EU, and comes amid signs that Mrs May's top advisers are pushing for a Norway-style soft Brexit arrangement with the EU which would see Britain observe single market rules on goods.
In a move likely to enrage Brexiteers, the plans being floated by civil service Brexit sherpa Olly Robbins would also reportedly see EU citizens given the right to travel freely to the UK if they have a guaranteed job, as well as an ongoing role for the European Court of Justice.
But the 36-strong group of Conservative backbenchers, led by Andrea Jenkyns - who quit the Government in May - use an open letter to the Prime Minister to insist that the UK's exit from the EU "must be absolute".
"We must not remain entangled with the EU’s institutions if this restricts our ability to exercise our sovereignty as an independent nation," it says.
"Anything less will be a weakening of our democracy. Britain must stand firm."
The MPs demand that Mrs May does not extend the Brexit transition period beyond December 2020, and say they will not accept any extension to the two-year withdrawal period already agreed between the UK and the EU.
Number 10 sources have already been forced to deny that the UK is considering a climbdown on free movement in a bid to strike a deal.
"In the build-up to Chequers, there has been some speculation that the UK is willing to allow free movement to continue as part of the negotiations," a Downing Street source said.
"The PM is clear that such a decision would not respect the will of the British people in the referendum."
Meanwhile, European Union insiders have said there is "no hope" of the UK reaching a Brexit deal by October as Mrs May continues to seek Cabinet backing for crucial details like Britain's future customs ties with the EU.
One told the Independent: "We don’t know exactly what she is asking for yet, so how can there be?
"First the UK needs to decide what it wants, then there needs to be a discussion here and even if it is acceptable, there are processes that have to take place first before everyone agrees to move forward."