Wednesday 23 October 2019

Mission impossible as May hangs on

Having survived a tempestuous week, Theresa May has declared it her 'renewed mission' to deliver Brexit. But with the scale of opposition to the British prime minister now clear... can she? Peter Geoghegan reports from Westminster

May after the vote of confidence in her leadership
May after the vote of confidence in her leadership
Jeremy Corbyn: a lukewarm Europhile at best

History, Karl Marx famously quipped, repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. There has been no shortage of déjà vu - or high farce -in British politics of late, but this week reached a new nadir.

It was supposed to be the week in which Theresa May put her Brexit deal before the UK parliament. Instead, it ended with the prime minister fending off a vote of no confidence in her leadership, struggling to divine a path to a Commons majority for her agreement with the European Union.

"Strong and stable" - the mantra of May's disastrous general election campaign last year - once more came back to haunt the Tory leader. On Monday morning, environment minister Michael Gove promised listeners of BBC radio's flagship Today programme that parliament would definitely be voting on the Brexit deal agreed last month.

Before Monday's lunch had been served in the Palace of Westminster, the so-called "meaningful vote" had been canned, as dozens of government MPs - and the Democratic Unionists - declared publicly that they would vote against the proposal. Faced with the prospect of resounding defeat, May elected to pull the vote.

The prime minister's more loyal colleagues hailed the move as both necessary and strategic. "She's lived to fight another day," one declared. May pledged to "renegotiate" the Northern Ireland backstop that has become such a lightning rod for dissent against her Brexit deal.

But, as so frequently over the past two-and-a-half years, Conservatives soon descended into internecine warfare. May was supposed to be spending Wednesday in Dublin with Leo Varadkar; instead she awoke to a vote on her leadership. Having threatened for weeks to bring down the prime minster, hardline Brexiteers in the incongruously named European Research Group finally managed to win the 48 votes needed to trigger a vote of no confidence in their leader.

In many ways that vote - held behind closed doors late Wednesday evening - was just as significant for the future direction of Britain as the aborted ballot on the Brexit compact scheduled for the previous day. If May had failed to win the backing of her MPs, a die-hard Brexiteer would almost certainly have taken over the leadership. Odds on a no-deal departure from the EU - and the possibility of a hard border in Ireland - would have increased dramatically.

In the end, May won the backing of her party to stay on as prime minister but more than a third of Conservative MPs voted against her, underscoring the uphill battle she faces in getting her Brexit deal through parliament. Rather than drawing a line under its divisions, the swift contest further exposed the ­bitter split within the Conservatives over Brexit.

In what is fast becoming a familiar feature of Britain's ongoing existential crisis over Brexit, Theresa May emerged from 10 Downing Street after the result. She said that her party had a "renewed mission" of "delivering the Brexit that people voted for". Such bromides, however, do little to disguise the reality of the task facing the prime minister.

Under Conservative Party rules, May cannot be challenged again for another year. But in order to placate her opponents, before Wednesday's ballot she was forced to promise the influential 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs that she would not lead the party into the next scheduled general election.

May's authority is badly damaged. The 200-117 victory margin was far from emphatic, with most tallies suggesting that a majority of Tory MPs without a ministerial post voted against their leader.

Grave doubts

The prime minister has bought herself a little time, but probably only a few more weeks. Having sworn blind that the Brexit vote would take place - and coaxed numerous ministers to repeat her assurances - the British government now says only that the vote will take place before January 21.

There are grave doubts over May's ability to get her Brexit bill through parliament when this vote does take place. One cabinet minister said May has to win round the DUP and persuade the Northern Irish unionists that the Brexit deal can work for them. But this is a very tall order.

The Democratic Unionists - upon whom May's parliamentary majority depends - have been very vocal in their opposition to the Brexit deal, and particularly the commitments on the Irish backstop.

Nigel Dodds, the DUP's éminence grise in Westminster, has described May's deal as "totally unacceptable to unionists". In news broadcasts, East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson openly encouraged Tories to defenestrate May. Once more, little attention was paid in the British press to the expressed wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland who voted to remain in the EU.

The Conservative leader is now seeking to placate her unionist allies.

Standing outside Number 10 after the vote, May said that she would secure "legal and political assurances" from Brussels on the Irish backstop.

Few, however, expect May to win any significant concessions. The arithmetic in Westminster is still very much against May. She is more than 100 votes shy of a majority for her deal. As well as dozens of Brexiteers who have gone on record against her deal, the Conservative benches include a smaller number of pro-Europeans who remain implacably opposed to leaving the single market.

The possibility of a second referendum on Brexit - once seen as remote - is growing. If May's deal is voted down when it eventually reaches parliament, calls for a "People's Vote" might become impossible to ignore.

Both remainers and leavers can see reasons to be cheerful about another Brexit vote. Polls suggest that there is now a majority for staying in the EU, but the margins are slight. Having failed in their bid to oust May, some ardent Brexiteers now hope that "no deal" would win in a second referendum, delivering their long-cherished dream of a hard break with Brussels. Much depends now on Labour's attitude. Jeremy Corbyn has long maintained that he wants to see a general election rather than a second referendum. But with the DUP still committed to supporting the prime minister in confidence votes - if not on her Brexit deal - there is still no majority for dissolving parliament.

Corbyn - a lukewarm Europhile at best - remains suspicious of a second Brexit vote, and many of his closest advisers share that scepticism.

Labour may act in calling for a vote of no confidence in May, but it would be a surprise if it did so before Christmas. The party line is that it wants to see May definitively fail in the Brexit talks first, most likely in the new year.

While British politics is once more consumed in a bout of collective navel gazing, time is fast running out for a deal with the Europeans.

The spectre of a no-deal Brexit has not lifted completely.

The UK departs the EU on March 29, whether a deal has been reached or not. There is no Commons majority for no deal, but it is unclear just what proposal, if any, could command the necessary parliamentary support.

In the febrile atmosphere of Westminster - where compromise is routinely decried as betrayal - it is not impossible to imagine Britain crashing out of the EU by accident rather than design.

The chaos of the last week in British politics could be repeated in the coming months. First as farce. Then as tragedy.

May Day in numbers


Number of Tory MPs who voted for May in a confidence ballot


Number of Tory MPs who voted against her


May’s majority


Expected date of the next general election, into which May has said she will not lead the party

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