British Leader Faces Down Rebellion in Her Conservative Party

But Theresa May’s path to Brexit remains uncertain.

British Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement in Downing Street on Dec 12 (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement in Downing Street on Dec 12 (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

There’s an old saying in Britain’s House of Commons: The people on the other side of the House are just the opposition. Your enemies are sitting beside you.

On Wednesday evening, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May beat back those enemies, defeating a no-confidence motion brought by members of her own Conservative Party over her Brexit plan. Two-hundred lawmakers supported May in a secret ballot on her leadership, while 117 opposed her.

But the results will do little to change the basic paradox of Brexit: May simply does not have enough support for her deal to withdraw Britain from the European Union. “The parliamentary arithmetic does not change if you change the person living in Downing Street,” Justice Secretary David Gauke told the BBC Wednesday morning. May’s challengers were mostly passionate Brexiteers. But while former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab or former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson would doubtless have toed a tougher line with Brussels, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, made clear on Tuesday that there is “no room for renegotiation” of May’s Brexit deal. And if there is no new deal, Parliament will remain deadlocked.

Will surviving the confidence vote leave May stronger—or fatally weakened? And what does it mean for the teetering Brexit process?

According to Conservative Party rules, a leadership challenge may only be mounted once a year—meaning that May is now safe from more coup attempts from her own colleagues until the end of 2019. She could, of course, still be ousted if the opposition Labor Party gets enough support for a Parliament-wide no-confidence vote—but even the most die-hard Conservative rebels and the party’s allies in the Democratic Unionist Party are wary of triggering a new general election that would likely bring the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn into power.

But the most significant result of the failed putsch attempt against May’s leadership could be to make a second referendum on Brexit much more likely. Indeed, it may be the only feasible option left on the table. Yet it’s clear that the deal—even with the clarifications that May has been desperately seeking in recent days from European leaders—has very little chance of being ratified by Parliament. Supporters of Brexit have blasted the deal as leaving Britain too closely tied to EU rules with no clear way out. Opponents argue that it’s pointless to remain closely aligned to the EU with no say in the laws that the U.K. must follow as the price for access to Europe’s single market. That leaves MPs only two possibilities: to ratify a deal that they hate, or return the issue to voters to break the political impasse. Last week, the European Court of Justice also changed the game by ruling that the U.K. could unilaterally suspend Article 50—the process by which Britain is obliged to leave the EU by March 29, 2019—opening the way to stop the ticking clock and effectively taking the threat of a hard Brexit off the table.

May has often ruled out calling a second referendum, referring to it “divisive” and an attempt to “thwart the will of the British people” who voted 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the EU in 2016. Yet May also ruled out calling a general election in 2017—before making a disastrous U-turn and losing her parliamentary majority as a result. She also insisted that a parliamentary vote on her deal scheduled for Tuesday would go ahead—before changing her mind just a day before.

The chances of a second referendum—known to its supporters as a People’s Vote—is also increased by the fact that both Leavers and Remainers hope that they can win it. Opinion polls still show a more or less evenly divided nation. But Brexit supporters believe that “Europe has behaved so disgustingly, so intransigently [during the negotiation process] that voters will just turn away in disgust,” said one senior British civil servant not authorized to speak on the record. “They really believe that Leave voters will just tell them again, ‘We’re having nothing to do with these nasty, bullying Europeans.’” Opponents of Brexit believe that changing demographics—with Leave-voting elderly voters being replaced with overwhelmingly Remain-voting young ones—as well as the realization that the promises of Brexiteers like Boris Johnson that Britain could “have its cake and eat it” are unachievable in practice will swing the vote in their favor. But the important point is that there’s growing support on both sides of the Brexit divide for a People’s Vote.

And so the underlying political dynamic remains unchanged. The one realistic choice remaining to Parliament is between a so-called soft Brexit, which would see the U.K. aligned with the EU indefinitely, or no Brexit at all.

This story has been updated. 

Owen Matthews, the author of Stalin's Children, is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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