Britain’s Conservative Party this morning had the opportunity to resolve at least some of the unknowns in the Brexit saga. True to form, it failed to do so.
As had long been expected, prime minister Theresa May was challenged by the hard Brexiters in a vote of no confidence in her leadership. There was never much doubt that she would win the ballot, but had she done so decisively – say, if her opponents had won fewer than a hundred of the 317 votes – it could have laid the issue to rest.
A decisive win still wouldn’t have helped May’s Brexit deal get through the House of Commons; the Brexiters only need a couple of dozen votes to prevent that, not a hundred. But it would have closed off leadership change as an option and given her some momentum to try something else.
Alternatively, if May’s opponents had got close, say something like 140 votes, it would have made her leadership untenable. She might have struggled on for another month or two, but it would have been clear that the future would involve a new Tory leader, presumably a rabid Brexiter.
The party, however, did neither. May won by 200 votes to 117: a big enough margin to put her out of immediate danger, but not big enough to quell the doubts. She has been wounded, but it may turn out to be only a flesh wound.
Superficially, May appears to be one of the most incompetent leaders of a major party that Britain has seen. But her strength is that she represents roughly the median point of her parliamentary party’s opinion on Brexit – the remainers to her left approximately balance the hard Brexiters to her right.
So replacing May would mean a shift one way or the other, and for a party that is already having trouble staying together, that would greatly increase the stress levels.
But although May’s parliamentary colleagues can remove her (another no confidence motion now cannot be moved for 12 months, but they could easily make her position impossible in other ways), they do not choose her replacement.
The parliamentary party only winnows the field to two, and a ballot of all party members then chooses between them. By all accounts, the party membership at large is much more virulently Europhobic than the MPs, so it is very likely that such a ballot would result in the victory of Boris Johnson, or someone equally deranged.
That’s a powerful reason for the MPs to stick with May. But it won’t be enough unless she can find some way out of the Brexit morass, a subject about which she appears to have not a clue.
And while her opponents, as was demonstrated this morning, don’t have the numbers to defeat her in the party room, they most certainly have the numbers to do so in parliament. If anything holds them back, it will only be the prospect of bringing the equally clueless Jeremy Corbyn to power: if Labor had a more mainstream leader, that person would quite probably now be prime minister.
Even fear of Corbyn will not hold the Tories together forever. But this morning’s vote leaves us none the wiser as to just how the break will come.