Although Theresa May has survived a no confidence vote, any attempt to bring her Brexit agreement before Parliament will likely fail again.
This weekend, Britain’s future relationship with the European Union – and the outlook for the British economy – remains as opaque as ever as a fiery group of right-wing Conservative members of parliament failed in their attempted challenge to Prime Minister Theresa May.
The attempt by the so-called European Research Group of Tory MPs to seize control of the of the Brexit campaign’s final stages and leave the European Union without a deal, foundered when a vote of no confidence put before the ruling Conservatives’ 1922 Committee was lost by 200 to 117.
Under party rules May cannot now be unseated through a party vote for at least a year unless defeated at a general election, which is unlikely. The prime minister told MPs she wanted to see Brexit through, but would not contest the next election, scheduled for 2022.
Had she received less than 159 votes, a majority of Tory MPs, she would have been forced to stand down, allowing the party to choose a successor, a bitter and deeply-divisive process that would have taken three weeks.
The vote was a humiliation for her principal rival, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who nurses ambitions of becoming prime minister. James Cleverly, deputy Tory chairman, injected a rare note of humour into the proceedings with the jibe that Boris has wasted his money getting a “leadership haircut. That is £7.50 he will never get back.”
The result ends a week of high drama in Westminster. The catalyst for the high-octane feuding that has consumed the media 24-7 was May’s realisation last weekend that she could not win a House of Commons vote on the compromise Brexit deal she had negotiated with the European Union. This deal was to deliver control of immigration, bring an end to the common agriculture and fisheries policy and open the way to free trade negotiations. But the agreement, approved by the EU as a “final deal,” contained a so-called backstop for Northern Ireland, created to allow free movement of goods across the border with the Irish Republic. Brexiteers opposed the backstop, fearing it could lead to indefinite ties between the province and the EU.
After pulling the vote – the first time this has happened in a major debate in 70 years – May set off to European capitals to try to win support for rewording the clauses of the 500 page agreement in regard to the backstop. She claims to have made some progress, but Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said further renegotiation was impossible.
For May, the result means business as usual. She has returned to Brussels for a four-day summit of EU leaders and will hope to win extra assurances on the terms of the backstop agreement. When she returns to Britain, she will weigh up if and when to try again to bring her agreement to the Commons, where it is still likely to fail.
What has often been forgotten is that May has changed horses more than once in the Brexit debate. In the 2016 referendum, as a member of the Cameron Cabinet, she voted “remain.” Appointed prime minister, she moved to support the “Brexit means Brexit” view of her party’s hard right, arguing that a “no-deal” solution would be better than a bad deal. She was badly advised by her first Brexit secretary, David Davis, who was conspicuously absent at the negotiating table.
As the perils of a “no-deal” Brexit began to dawn on her, she listened to advice from business leaders, the Bank of England Governor Mark Carney and her chancellor, Phillip Hammond. While still convinced she had to deliver Brexit, she realised that the only deal that made sense was one that allowed open trade with the EU under a detailed agreement. The result was a deal welcomed by many, but hated by the party’s right-wing.
Members of the Tory right are claiming that the 117 votes against May have weakened her and have increased the volume on their calls for her to resign. However, they also were weakened by the failure of their challenge.
Parliament will almost certainly reject their call for a hard Brexit, fuelling the rising demand for a second referendum. However, further progress on this is unlikely until the New Year.
Colin Chapman FAIIA is a London-based writer, broadcaster and public speaker specialising in geopolitics, international economics and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017.
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