UK Prime Minister Theresa May has survived a no-confidence motion within the Conservative Party, quite possibly leaving the country in an even more confused situation than before.
May won the vote 200-117, also quite possibly the worst possible result, with the PM gaining just enough of a margin to make her position tenable, yet insufficient to give her intra-party legitimacy.
Best of all, under the party’s stability rules, another such motion cannot be brought on for another year. The vote was triggered by a petition of 48 letters to the “1922 committee” of Tory backbenchers (the year is their average birth date), demanding a confidence vote.
The pro-Leave Brexit camp have been pushing for what the Brits don’t call a spill since the announcement of the deal struck between May and the EU, which would see the UK subject to EU rules for an indefinite period, in order to stay within the EU Customs Union, until a UK-EU trade deal was negotiated.
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That deal had to be ratified by parliament. But it never had any chance of getting up, with Labour, Lib Dems and Tory leavers opposed. Two days ago, May pulled the bill on the eve of the vote, and the no-confidence motion followed.
The situation is now head-bangingly complex. May has been conducting a round of shuttle diplomacy in Europe to try and get a better deal, but everyone knows this is simply a way of looking busy. There is no better offer on the table, and nothing that would satisfy Leavers, save for access to the Customs Union, but immunity from EU laws and regulations, essentially a giant free rider, and a gaping hole in EU governance.
The “crash-out” date of March 29 next year looms, in which the Article 50 process fully kicks in, and the UK leaves the EU. At that point the UK will be at a disadvantage to non-EU nations that have customs protocols in place, because there will be no protocols in place. Customs will be ad hoc, and the Northern Ireland-Irish Republic border will have to be re-enforced, or left as an open back door to the EU.
So what next? The pressure will now start to build on everyone. The Leave Tories will remain steadfast, inviting a crash-out. Not only do they want to retake their party and reform it along neo-Thatcherite lines, but personal ambition is playing a role; this chaos is the best shot for Boris Johnston, Jacob Rees-Mogg and others to present their leadership credentials.
Labour, too, will hold the line — but the pressure on the Corbyn leadership will be tremendous. Had the party been under Blairite leadership, they would quite possibly have crossed the floor to support the EU’s deal. May would have accepted it, knowing that some sort of place in history was secure, and Labour would have gone on to election victory as the natural party of government against a Tory rabble.
But the Corbyn leadership is pro-Leave itself — left Brexit, or “Lexit” as it’s being called — and they have no incentive to help May in this regard. What they want is a new election, a contest on the Tory legitimacy to lead on anything. They’re in talks with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to come out on a parliamentary no-confidence motion — the other parties would join that — but the DUP would need a spoon with a handle the length of the Irish Sea to sup with Corbyn, whom they see as an IRA sympathiser.
The real jam would come for Labour if May were to go nuclear and propose a second referendum, based on the proposition that “Leave” means “leave with no deal”. That is what many, many people want — many of them Labour supporters — but a second referendum, a “Yes” vote to remain, would give May what she needed to reclaim control of her party. Labour would then be split.
Thrills and spills. Mostly spills. And a vote curiously named around confidence, the one thing in short supply, even before the gates close at Calais, in a few months’ time.