The prime minister will face fresh demands from Tory grandees on Tuesday to set a fast timetable for quitting, as a shocked Conservative party contemplated the loss of 1,334 local councillors.
The dire performance – the worst for a quarter of a century – has triggered further pressure for her to resign, including from former foreign office minister Hugo Swire, until now a loyalist, who said: “We now urgently need a new leader.”
Taking on Tory Brexiteers, Mr Gove said: “We have to face facts. At the moment, the arithmetic in the House of Commons is opposed to leaving without a deal.”
He warned that “whoever succeeds Theresa” would inherit her difficulties, unless the Brexit crisis was resolved first.
David Gauke, the justice secretary, said: “I am confident that Theresa May is the right person to lead us through this process.
“We have got to deliver phase one of leaving the European Union and the idea we should be changing the leader before we do that is not something that I think would be sensible.”
And Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said: “I don’t think changing the leadership would mean a change to the arithmetic.”
The government had to “find a majority that will work”, either with Labour or by having “talks with others and having further votes in the Commons”.
But Sir Hugo said the Tories had no time to waste, after suffering their worst local elections day since the dog days of John Major's government in 1995.
“These are challenging times for Conservatives and we now urgently need a new leader to reinvigorate the party if we are to prevent an extreme left-wing government that will bring this country to its knees,” he tweeted.
Ms May is expected to renew her efforts to strike a cross-party deal with Jeremy Corbyn, hoping to force it through the Commons by the end of June.
It is too late to prevent the European elections taking place on 23 May but Brexit could still be delivered in time to prevent MEPs actually taking their seats in July.
However, there is huge opposition to such a deal – based on a form of customs union – in both main parties.
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