Theresa May is facing growing expectations of a dramatic vote of no confidence as Tory MPs seize what they think is their best chance to topple her before Christmas.
Pressure intensified significantly on Tuesday night as the Prime Minister arrived back in the UK from a whistle-stop tour of EU capitals in a desperate bid to save her Brexit deal.
Several MPs suggested the 48-letter threshold required for a Tory leadership vote had been finally passed, and one senior source told HuffPost UK that more letters had been submitted while May was abroad.
However, former Cabinet minister Owen Paterson said on Wednesday morning that his letter delivered in person last night had not yet triggered a confidence vote.
The plotters, who range from Brexiteers to Remainers, believe the last straw was May’s decision to postpone a crunch Commons vote on her Brexit proposals.
A Tory vote of no confidence can only be triggered once 15% of the party’s MPs write letters to Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee.
HuffPost UK understands that Sir Graham has made clear that if the threshold is ever reached he would only ever inform the Prime Minister. But he would also go public very swiftly afterwards.
With May due to fly out to Dublin and then to Brussels on Wednesday ahead of an EU summit, rebel MPs believed they had a “narrow window” of less than 18 hours in which to ensure Sir Graham could break the news to the PM.
One MP said that Brady is expected to meet her in her Commons office on Wednesday morning and under party rules would then proceed swiftly to staging the confidence vote.
The Commons is due to break up for its Christmas recess next week, and some of her allies believed that once she got to the festive season she could come back in the New Year with a fresh attempt to win support for her deal.
One source told HuffPost UK that they believed enough letters had been submitted to ensure a confidence vote. “There’s a narrow window and we have to seize it.”
Another source in the backbench Brexiteers’ European Research Group added that the 48 letter mark had indeed been passed.
A former Cabinet minister said that his last count for letters was in ‘the upper thirties’ because of public statements plus private discussions.
“It does feel like something’s changed with a genuine ‘enough is enough’ feeling last night and perhaps even more so today, watching the PM begging around Europe. It’s angered colleagues, it looks so damned demeaning.”
However, rebel MPs like Brexiteers Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed weeks ago they had the numbers needed and were ridiculed when they failed to materialise. If the required letters again fail to materialise on Wednesday, MPs loyal to the PM are sure to intensify their mockery of her critics.
Plotters believe they can force a quick two-week leadership contest among MPs and party members, with a newly centralised membership system allowing voting by email rather than just post.
However, even if a confidence vote was held this Thursday, the party would not have enough time to get a new leader in place before Christmas. May could be forced to stay on as ‘caretaker PM’ until the New Year.
May was due to arrive back at Downing Street at 9pm after a dizzying day of European diplomacy in the Hague, Berlin and Brussels.
The scene had echoes of the last days of Margaret Thatcher in 1990, when she was in Paris on an overseas trip while back home large numbers of Tory MPs voted for rival Michael Heseltine. Within days she was ousted from Downing Street.
Chief Whip Julian Smith was seen entering No.10 late on Tuesday amid intense speculation that he would have to try to organise a last-ditch operation to help May fight and win a confidence vote. Tory party chairman Brandon Lewis also held a late-night meeting with the PM on her return to No.10.
Following Prime Minister’s Questions time against Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday, May will attend a 2pm Cabinet meeting that was postponed from Tuesday.
She was then due to head to Dublin to meet Irish PM Leo Varadkar, overnighting in Ireland before setting off for the Brussels summit on Thursday morning.
Sir Graham had not received the 48 letters as of 4pm and the PM told broadcasters in Brussels that she had not been notified of any vote of confidence. But rebels said that they had submitted more letters since then.
Former deputy PM Damian Green told Newsnight that if the threshold had been reached “this is an act of monumental self-indulgence”.
Rebel MPs have hesitated about launching a leadership challenge amid fears that they would fail to win the simple majority of Tory MPs - 158 MPs - needed to force her out of office.
If she wins, she is safe from challenge for a whole year, during which she would be in a strong position to oversee Brexit.
But the mood changed in recent days as different wings of the party lost patience with her attempt to get a Brexit deal appeared to falter badly.