Tonight, in the face of what one loyal Cabinet Minister had called “this ridiculous indulgence” the Conservative Party has chosen to back their leader and Prime Minister, by 200 votes to 117, a majority of 83. However, with 117 of her own MPs voting against her, it will be seen by many as far from the resounding victory Mrs May needed. She stays on as leader and Prime Minister, for now. The Prime Minister spoke briefly outside Number 10, saying she would carry on, whilst acknowledging the scale of the vote against her, and pledging to return to Brussels to try and secure “political and legal assurances” around the Northern Irish backstop. Victory yes, but in truth the fundamentals around her Brexit deal haven’t changed.
Yes today’s extraordinary events mean Mrs May has faced down rebellion, won, and under the Tory Party’s leadership rules she can’t be challenged for another year. She can theoretically get on with securing those assurances around the backstop, and getting her deal through the Commons in the New Year. If only it were that simple. The EU is adamant it won’t budge on re-opening the Withdrawal Agreement, so tinkering aside, the deal she presents to the House won’t be much different from that presented already, probably doesn’t command a majority, and in the end a no deal Brexit remains the default position. In truth, the huge mess that loomed before today, looms even larger tomorrow. The only thing that’s changed is that in seeking to ensure she won tonight’s vote she has promised her MPs she will resign once Brexit is secured and before the next scheduled General Election in 2022. Here’s what happened, why it matters and what’s next…
What has happened?
Theresa May won tonight’s vote of no confidence in her leadership of the Conservative Party by 83 votes in a secret ballot of Tory MPs.
That means 200 Conservative MPs expressed their confidence in her continuing as their leader (63% of her MPs), while 117 (37%) said that they thought her time was up.
As explained earlier today, it came after at least 48 MPs wrote to Tory backbench shop steward Sir Graham Brady calling for a leadership vote – triggering the contest.
Theresa May spent the day trying to win over MPs to support her in the contest. Addressing her own MPs before the vote, said she was seeking a “legally binding” assurance that the Northern Irish backstop would be temporary in a bid to move wavering Brexiters and get her Northern Irish allies, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) behind her deal.
Crucially, at that same meeting of her MPs, she made clear she will stand down as Conservative leader and Prime Minister before the 2022 election – starting a potentially long contest to replace her.
Speaking immediately after the result leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg called on May to resign, arguing that she had overwhelmingly lost the confidence of the Tory backbenchers – 163 of the 317 Conservative MPs serve in some form of ministerial office.
Speaking outside Number 10 after the vote, the Prime Minister gave a very short statement in which she referenced the fact that a significant number of her colleagues had voted against her, but made clear her intention to carry on and deliver her Brexit deal, with additional political and legal assurances on the Irish backstop.
What does it mean?
Theresa May is safe as Prime Minister – for now. Under Conservative Party rules she cannot be challenged again for another 12 months.
But the scale of the rebellion against her leadership is a problem. There are now 117 who have said they don’t want her to lead the party, the country, or the Brexit process. What they do next will be critical, and many in Westminster expect them to make life difficult for the PM.
Having said she won’t stand as leader in the 2022 General Election, Theresa May will also face endless speculation as to when she will go, and hand over to a new leader. Jockeying among potential candidates, which was already rife, will accelerate. But it will allow the Prime Minister to present herself as the custodian of Brexit – making it her mission to lead the UK out of the EU with a deal.
In turn that means the current Brexit timetable continues – the PM has committed to holding a vote in the House of Commons on a revised version of her deal by January 21, and the clock is ticking down to the UKs departure from the EU on March 29 2019.
The PM remains a long way from securing a parliamentary majority in that vote and it will prove very challenging to secure changes to the backstop that could satisfy her internal opponents and the DUP. Therefore, the parliamentary logjam around Brexit is unlikely to go away, with a second referendum or a no deal Brexit remaining plausible outcomes.
What happens next?
The Prime Minister will tomorrow travel to Brussels for the European Council, where she will hope to receive the “legally binding assurances” around the backstop that she reportedly discussed with her own MPs tonight. If she can secure these reassurances or something close to them then she will put the deal before Parliament in early January.
The Tory rebels will now regroup to reassess their tactics. Without the ability to force a leadership election for another 12 months they will have to determine how they will approach their ongoing opposition to the PM and her deal.
Similarly, the DUP must consider their options. Having allied themselves with the Tory challengers to the Prime Minister they must decide if they will seek to reconcile with Mrs May or junk their confidence and supply agreement in light of Mrs May’s inability to junk the backstop.
Labour will continue to debate tabling a motion of no confidence in the government. Moderate MPs have been calling for Jeremy Corbyn to do this, but the Labour leader is reluctant to do so for fear of losing. Corbyn’s real fear is that losing a vote of confidence would take a fresh General Election off the table, forcing him into backing a “Peoples Vote”, which he is loath to do.