A long, chaotic day at Westminster led to a surprising vote, fluctuations in the price of the pound, and an even more uncertain future for British Prime Minister Theresa May—and her plan for Britain to withdraw from the European Union. Herewith an update on the latest in the Brexit saga.
What Happened Wednesday?
On Tuesday, a critical mass of at least 48 MPs filed letters of no confidence in May’s leadership of the Conservative Party. The 1922 Committee—the name for the caucus of Conservative MPs in the House of Commons—held the confidence vote Wednesday evening. In a secret ballot, 200 Conservative MPs voted to keep May as leader, whilst 117 MPs voted to sack her.
What Does It Mean?
Under Conservative Party rules, May cannot be challenged as Conservative leader for another year.
So May Won the Vote of Confidence?
Yes—and no. Going into the vote, May had several in-built advantages:
- The vote of confidence was held only about 24 hours after it was announced—not much time for opponents to organize.
- May made the point on Wednesday that removing her as leader could delay Brexit. Under Conservative Party rules, if she were removed and multiple MPs ran to replace her, rank-and-file party members would choose from the top two candidates in a nationwide ballot. That campaign and vote would take weeks to organize—and likely would not occur by the January 21 deadline for the government to have a vote on its Brexit plan in Parliament. May argued, with some validity, that taking time out for a leadership contest now would force Parliament to pause the Brexit process.
- Roughly 100 Conservative MPs serve in May’s government, either as cabinet secretaries or more junior ministers. Despite the secret nature of the confidence ballot, this “payroll vote” should have all voted to retain May as leader—because if they do not support her, they should resign from the government.
- Whilst addressing the 1922 Committee, May committed to standing down as leader prior to the next election, mindful that Conservative MPs want to avoid a re-run of last year’s election debacle. (Whilst the next general election need not occur until 2022, she did not specify a timeline for her departure—a detail both her critics and the media will likely press for in the days to come.)
Put it another way: Despite all these structural advantages—and her willingness to make herself a lame duck to win Wednesday’s vote—May still lost the support of roughly 37 percent of her MPs. No wonder one newspaper called the vote little more than a “stay of execution.”
Why Are Conservative MPs Upset?
The prime objection revolves around the so-called “backstop.” The term applies to a “Plan B” scenario if the European Union and the United Kingdom cannot reach a trade agreement after the UK leaves the EU. Designed to prevent a “hard border” between Northern Ireland—a part of the UK, therefore out of the EU post-Brexit—and the Republic of Ireland to its south, which will remain part of the EU post-Brexit.
Conservative MPs don’t like the concept of the “backstop” much at all, but they particularly don’t like the fact that it would apply EU laws and regulations to Northern Ireland (and to a lesser extent, the rest of the UK), and that the UK would need EU permission to exit the “backstop” if and when it ever goes into effect.
What Do Britain’s Other Political Parties Want?
Their interests and positions vary:
- Labour, as the largest opposition party, are striking a fine line themselves. If given a dose of truth serum, most Labour MPs would say they would scrap any talk of Brexit altogether. But they fear political fallout if they come out so strongly against Brexit—which a majority of the British people supported in the national referendum two years ago. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has largely attacked the government for its handling of Brexit, whilst trying to ignore, or paper over, differences within his party about the issue, or what a Labour government would do instead.
- The Scottish National Party, the second largest opposition, oppose Brexit—not least because Scotland voted to Remain in the EU in the referendum. They have been more explicit in calling for May’s ouster, and an end to the Brexit process.
- The Liberal Democrats want to defeat May’s government, largely to bring about a second referendum, a so-called “people’s vote.” However, because their party was decimated in the 2015 general election, they have but 11 MPs, and therefore comparatively less influence.
Could the Other Parties Defeat Theresa May?
In theory, yes. Whilst May cannot face a vote of confidence as leader of the Conservative Party for another year, she can—and likely will—face a vote of confidence as prime minister sooner or later. Thus far, the Democratic Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland have said they would not oppose May in a vote of confidence in Parliament—at least not yet. Their votes, plus the votes of all 317 Conservative MPs, would allow May to win a confidence motion.
However, the Democratic Unionist MPs do not like the “backstop”—far from it, as it would most affect their interests in Northern Ireland. If May cannot assuage their concerns, and either the Democratic Unionists or a handful of Conservative MPs defect, her government could face defeat.
What Happens Next?
May has bought herself some time, but not much. She has already begun seeking assurances from the EU on the “backstop,” and will continue her politicking at a European Council meeting set for Thursday and Friday. The EU will likely give her some rhetorical cover for facilitating implementation of the withdrawal agreement—but they have ruled out any changes to the agreement itself.
Can May Get the Votes for a Revised Brexit Deal?
The math still does not look promising. More than 100 Conservative MPs said they would oppose the deal as of earlier this week, and very few members of opposition parties said they would support it. If the EU refuses to change the language of the withdrawal agreement itself, persuading so many MPs to change their votes based on mere assurances may prove an uphill climb.
What Happens If May Still Can’t Get the Votes for Brexit?
Very good question. Stay tuned.