After a week of humiliating setbacks in her pursuit of Brexit, Theresa May, the UK prime minister, was spared the indignity of being voted out of office by her own MPs. Her victory in the Conservative leadership confidence ballot by 200 votes to 117 was seized on by allies as evidence that she retains the support of her party. To do so, May had to concede that she would not seek to lead the Conservatives into the scheduled 2022 election. Although reports differ as to how firmly she committed to stepping aside, it may have been sufficient to swing some extra votes her way. Her opponents, such as arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, have said the result shows that a large majority of all MPs in the House of Commons does not have confidence in the prime minister and that she ought to consider her position.
.@theresa_may told ‘22 she would love to fight next general election but recognized that would not be popular with many colleagues. That was seen by some MPs as statement she will go after Brexit but sounds to me like constructive ambiguity. They heard what they wanted to hear…
— Robert Peston (@Peston) December 12, 2018
May’s margin of victory was clear but not overwhelming. Over a third of Conservative MPs have shown they have no confidence in her. Supporters have been repeating the line that she received more votes than in the leadership election of 2016. However, that was an open contest for the vacant post of leader, whereas this was a confidence vote in a sitting prime minister. The total of 117 votes against May is undoubtedly damaging, although not fatally so.
Victory in the ballot gives the prime minister some breathing space – she cannot be challenged again in this way for a year. The threat of a Tory confidence vote has hung over her head like the Sword of Damocles since the general election of June 2017, and speculation had become feverish in the weeks leading up to the vote. The postponement earlier in the week of the “meaningful vote” on the withdrawal agreement May negotiated with the EU amid fears of an overwhelming parliamentary defeat hardened the mood among Brexiteer MPs. May’s dash to the continent to seek “assurances” about the enforcement of the Irish backstop, the most contentious element of the deal, seemed to project an image of weakness. That was emphasised by the curt refusal of European politicians to countenance any renegotiation of the deal.
It was therefore little surprise when the chairman of the Conservatives’ backbench 1922 committee, Graham Brady, announced that he had received the required 48 letters, representing 15% of Tory MPs, to trigger a confidence vote in May.
Danger at every turn
Relief that she has won that contest will be short-lived, however. The road to securing parliamentary support for the withdrawal agreement looks no easier than it did before the ballot. With Labour and the opposition parties primed to vote against the deal, May needs solid support from her own MPs as well as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which provides confidence-and-supply backing to her minority government. But the DUP is vehemently opposed to the Irish backstop, which it argues would undermine the unity of the UK. Meanwhile, the hard-Brexiteer wing of the Conservative Party, organised around Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group (ERG) remains steadfast in its hostility to the deal. May is still staring at a heavy defeat in the “meaningful vote”, whenever it is finally brought before parliament.
Danger lies in whichever direction the prime minister chooses to go. Picking off ERG members and winning their support for the deal still looks unlikely. The DUP will not be placated by mere assurances – as opposed to legal guarantees – on the Irish backstop. Some commentators have urged May to seek a broad coalition of support for a deal spanning the non-ERG majority in the Conservative Party and a block of mainstream Labour MPs. That could entail shifting to an even softer Brexit, such as permanent membership of the customs union. Many Labour MPs might also support a deal that kept Britain in the single market. However, May has always interpreted the EU referendum as a rejection of freedom of movement of people, which is a condition of membership of the single market. It is difficult to see how she could credibly change her position on that now. She has also repeatedly rejected calls for a second referendum and at any rate, there appears little support for it among Tory MPs.
The more general problem with a reliance on Labour votes to push through a deal in the face of significant backbench Tory opposition is that it would even more severely split the Conservative Party, perhaps irrevocably so. It would be easy to see cohesion within the governing party breaking down completely. That could have enormous consequences for the Conservatives’ future electoral prospects.
More immediately, however, the government is reliant on the support of the DUP for its continuation in office. The DUP is committed to supporting the government in parliamentary confidence votes and in budget votes. If the DUP were to withdraw from the confidence-and-supply agreement, the government would be vulnerable to defeat in every Commons vote. It has been suggested that the DUP would not vote against the government in a confidence vote for fear of ending up with a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. However, if the withdrawal agreement is accepted in the “meaningful vote”, the DUP may feel it has little option but to oppose a government that had, in its opinion, imperilled the strength of the union.
Whether through defeat in a parliamentary confidence vote or a simple inability to get anything done in parliament without the DUP’s support, an early election cannot be ruled out. One of May’s pitches to her MPs in her statement preceding the party ballot was that she would not contest the next election in 2022 as leader. But what happens if the election takes place much sooner than then, perhaps as early as February 2019? It would surely not be possible to change leaders in such circumstances.
May’s victory removes one source of uncertainty. However, it does not remove the roadblock that is parliament’s “meaningful vote”. The options appear to be a cross-party alliance that causes a devastating split in her own party, an early general election that would worry every Tory MP with a majority under 5,000 (after the shock of the 2017 election), or a second referendum that would be opposed by most Conservatives. The immediate danger may have passed for the prime minister, but things won’t get any easier.