Dead May Walking

The British prime minister survived a no-confidence vote, but solved none of her problems.

British Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement outside Number 10 Downing Street on Dec. 12, 2018 in London, England. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement outside Number 10 Downing Street on Dec. 12, 2018 in London, England. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Two out of three ain’t bad. Of 317 Conservative members of parliament who voted in Wednesday’s no-confidence vote, 200 supported Prime Minister Theresa May, and 117 voted against. That’s one more than voted for her in 2016 (when there were around a dozen more Conservative MPs).

This vote confirms three things. First, the Conservative Party has been permanently divided by Brexit: between a third who want to break all ties with the European Union and leave without a deal, and two thirds determined to avoid it—with a spectrum of views from reversing Brexit entirely to interpreting May’s deal as stepping stone to a relatively different, Canada-style, relationship with the EU.

Second, Brexit, paradoxically, reduced the strength of the hard-liners even as it increased their radicalism. When Tory party policy was to remain in the EU, at least half of MPs opposed it. (Half declared they would vote to leave the EU during the 2016 referendum, and several backed remaining only out of loyalty to then-Prime Minister David Cameron.)

If around half the party might not have bothered to leave the EU, even if they wouldn’t have actively joined it, half was determined to go. Now only a third wants to take that further step away. Third, the vote strengthens May tactically. By a quirk of Tory rules, she is now immune from another challenge to her leadership for 12 months. She’s like a video game character who got an invulnerability power up just when she needed to face her most implacable enemy.

This means that when the prime minister makes another attempt to bring her Brexit Withdrawal Agreement to Parliament (she abandoned the previous attempt on Monday) she can do it without worrying that defeat will trigger a challenge to her leadership of the Conservative Party. And a good thing too, her supporters will quietly think to themselves, because defeat in that vote is certain.

Her deal is opposed not just by the official opposition parties but also by hard-line anti-Europeans in her own party (we now know there are 117 of them) and pro-European backbenchers (between 10 and 20).

This would be bad enough if the Conservative Party had a majority, but it relies on the support of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which also opposes the deal because of the “backstop”—a legal device to prevent the need to erect a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. May is now in a much stronger position to weather that defeat.

It raises the stakes for her pro-Brexit opponents. Brexiteer cabinet ministers and their hard-line supporters will have agonizing choices. Cabinet ministers who disagree with her plan will have to choose whether to put pressure on her by resigning. Backbenchers now realize they can’t replace her with a more congenial prime minister. The only option available to them will be to try to bring the government down by supporting the Labour Party opposition in a parliamentary vote of confidence.

British constitutional procedures would then give them 14 days to find another prime minister that would support their hard line. But it also risks either a general election, in which a divided Conservative Party could do very badly—and they would be hard pressed to support a prime minister they disagree with on the main political question of the generation—or an anti-Brexit coalition that could enact a second referendum.

For anti-Brexit campaigners, whether ex-Remainers reconciled to Brexit or pro-second referendum radicals, this failed putsch is a small step forward. The moderates can see that May’s withdrawal agreement allows them to use the transition period it would achieve to pursue their (and my) Norway Plus option, which would keep the U.K. in close economic alignment with the EU’s legal and commercial order and which would limit disruption.

Supporters of another referendum can take pleasure in the humbling of their most vociferous opponents. Nevertheless, the path to another referendum, which requires a change of government to get the necessary legislation through Parliament (and perhaps to ask for an extension to the Article 50 negotiating process) now looks trickier, because Theresa May has become that little more difficult to dislodge.

That sticking power is, however, borrowed. In order to win today’s vote, she made one crucial concession. She promised she wouldn’t lead the Conservative Party into another election. Though this is in many ways is a given—having done so badly in the 2017 election, where she lost her party’s parliamentary majority, the prospect of another campaign led by May fills most Tory MPs with terror—it is being treated as a setback to her authority. She has admitted she’s an aging monarch, and the succession battle can now take place more openly.

On Wednesday, Theresa May avoided defeat. She bought herself time and gained tactical advantage over her internal enemies. It would go too far to describe this as a victory. She lives to fight another day but can’t alter the fundamental fact that there’s no parliamentary support for any particular kind of Brexit, let alone the one she has negotiated. Now, she will trek back to Brussels in a futile attempt to seek concessions on the backstop that the EU will not offer.

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the Executive Director of TRD Policy.

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