Analysis: May survives – 3 things to look out for now

Ben Wray

The No Confidence vote fell with 200 Tory MPs backing May to 117 against

SO she survived. Theresa May clung on to power after defeating an attempt by her own MPs to oust her, winning the vote by 200 for to 117 against. 

But winning by no means ends her problems. In fact the 12 December may be the day which really will be remembered as the beginning of the end for the prime minister.

CommonSpace identifies the three things you need to keep an eye on now to see which way the Brexit saga goes next.

1) Will May blink on her deal?

When Theresa May addressed Tory backbench MPs on Wednesday evening before the No Confidence vote, she was much more willing to give up her personal political capital than make any serious concessions on her deal with the EU. She said she would step down as prime minister before the next General Election scheduled for 2022 (but left enough wriggle room in case she’s forced into an election before then). She also said she wouldn’t seek to call a General Election, which will come as a relief to many Tories. But May gave nothing away when it came to the Deal – the thing that has been the trigger for the No Confidence vote itself. 

That is probably because she has already agreed to it, and so has the EU27. The EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker insists it can’t be re-opened, and why would the EU want to re-open it when the same interlocutor remains at Number 10 and it hasn’t even been put to a vote of the UK Parliament? But she’s in a big bind, because the 117 votes of no confidence from her own MPs shows she has no chance of getting this Deal, unchanged, through the parliament. 

Her strategy before the No Confidence Vote appeared to be to play for time. By running down the clock to 21 January, she could leave her backbenchers (and opposition MPs) in a situation whereby they appeared to be dicing with No Deal. But that strategy could have worked when it meant bullying 30 or 40 of her own MPs, but not 117. And that doesn’t even include the DUP, who will be unmoved by the prime minister’s predicament, especially now that she has ruled out calling a General Election. 

So the thing to look out for now with May is an attempt to find a way to re-open the negotiations, specifically the backstop. Brussels has an interest in giving May a little wriggle room to save a deal that works for them. Expect a flurry of documents from Brussels attempting to reassure MPs, but without any legal force behind it. But even if the UK was given a unilateral mechanism to exit the backstop, there’s still no guarantees it would pass the House of Commons. Her situation remains perilous.

2. Will Labour force a vote in parliament?

Now that May has survived, the ‘how to remove the prime minister’ question swings back towards the Labour party. Before the no confidence vote Jeremy Corbyn was under pressure to call one of his own in the House of Commons, with SNP, Plaid Cymru, Lib Dems and centrist Labour MPs pushing for a vote. Labour said that they didn’t want to pull the trigger too early, before Tory MPs or the DUP were willing to take down the government. 

Will that calculation have changed now that 117 Tory MPs voted against her? Probably not. Those MPs almost certainly don’t want a General Election, which would put their jobs on the line and potentially see the most left-wing Labour leader ever get power. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. While Remain Tory MPs speak with conviction about wanting to keep the UK in the EU, none have said they are willing to bring down the government to do it. 

Labour might feel like it’s worth trying now that May is secure within her own party for the time being. On the otherhand they might want to wait until the meaningful vote happens and falls, then leaving Remain Tory MPs and the DUP with a choice – No Deal Brexit or a new government. 

3. Will the Brexiteers start to crack?

Jacob Rees-Mogg was first out of the blocks, responding immediately to the No Confidence Vote by calling for May to resign anyway. Hard line Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg will not be put off by this defeat, and will be eyeing a defeat of the meaningful vote being the moment in which the prime minister could be forced to resign. If not, Rees-Mogg and his allies won’t blink about pushing it all the way to No Deal.

But Rees-Mogg does not represent all of the 117. Far from it. The really hard, ideologically committed Brexiteers are very small in number. Many of the 117 will fear No Deal and a Corbyn government much more than they are committed to the fantasy empire 2.0 Brexit. With May ostensibly safe as leader for one year, will some of the 117, and indeed some of the ERG group, begin to break off the closer the meaningful vote in January gets? 

The Brexiteers have punched above their weight because of the prime minister’s weakness. They have never been close to commanding a majority, and they have their own internal divisions. Will they turn in on each other, or can they continue to make May’s life extremely difficult?

Picture courtesy of Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916