May back, but wounded

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.

5 thoughts on “May back, but wounded

  1. The 1922 Committee seems to operate as a (very) rough British equivalent to Australia’s Senate? At least when there’s a Conservative Prime Minister.

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  2. I don’t know about this. I mean she won more votes than in her original election as leader. And we have had leaders who became PMs, on a single vote majority (and with two MPs not present and not allowed proxy votes): Abbott. All of these statements about “humiliation” and “wounded” and “lost credibility” are all in the eye of the beholder and, especially in the UK, on precedent. Not worth anything really. At least not in the immediate, and she has eliminated the long-term from her personal calculations; another bit of clarity.

    I reckon this vote, as unnecessary as it was, has actually clarified the situation. If anything May could have gained a bit–she didn’t lose which is what most competitions are all about (a win by one vote is as good as a mile; ask Abbott or Turnbull’s 2016 election etc). She was already struggling with credibility and there is no real change, except a possible opportunity to exploit (if she had the political chops; ok she doesn’t, except now she really has even less to lose or to prove).

    But anyway, as you say, all this is spectacular diversion from what matters. And it brings me back to my opinion that she should have allowed parliament its vote. Now that she has actually become safe(r) for the time being, she could and should go ahead with the vote. Like I said before, there is too much bloviating about how these votes will go. Today everyone can say it was obvious she would win this party vote, but that is not what was being said and speculated about just 48 hours ago—the media were all poised to interrupt their late-night programs with news of her demise. But it sure has revealed the Brexit so-called leaders, of Boris, Rees-Mogg et al to be a busted flush. Likewise, a vote in the commons would force everyone to crystalize their position and stop bloviating (perhaps especially Labor). A no vote will most likely lead to a People’s Vote, so I can’t see why May should fight that … in the long term she just might get reflected glory in saving the UK from making this disastrous decision, while at the same time she tried above and beyond the call of duty trying to fulfill a the people’s Brexit (“despite that nasty EU … blah, blah”; her latest round-robin in Europe looks a bit pathetic, but OTOH, it does bring home starkly to everyone that the UK is not going to change terms, this is not irrelevant for another vote).

    Remember, at the time of the referendum there was a majority of MPs, across all parties, in favour of Remain. Has it really changed … especially as polls tell us the public has become more Remain?

    She should force the vote and let the dice fall. She, and UK, has little to lose and much to gain. As it is they are still shuffling toward a disastrous hard Brexit.

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  3. Here is something Timothy Garton-Ash wrote in The G:

    “So the only good Brexit is no Brexit. The chances of that – what May charmingly calls the “risk of no Brexit” – have soared in recent weeks. Whereas elsewhere nationalist populism has seriously impaired the workings of democracy, in Britain it is working. I have spent a lot of time with British MPs recently, and seen how seriously they are treating their role as elected representatives in a critical moment. As a result, the mother of parliaments is now taking back control. Nobody knows what will emerge from its often arcane and operatic procedures. A new election? A government of national unity? A vote for Norway plus (British membership in the EFTA pillar of the EEA, plus a customs union)? No deal by accident rather than design? Anything is possible. Nothing is certain – except that there will be several more weeks of fireworks, smoke and confusion. But the option quietly gaining support among MPs is a second referendum.
    It is ridiculous to suggest it would be undemocratic for Britain’s sovereign parliament to take the question back to the people. The resulting referendum campaign could be angry and divisive.”

    The main point I take from this, is that it really has come down to parliament. Both May and the Conservatives, perhaps Corbyn’s Labor too, have proved themselves not up to the job. It is time for parliament to vote on the issue and then continue to work towards a solution, instead of being obsessed with internal politics or partisan politics (Corbyn). Surely now, May has little left to lose and no longer has to try to appease the BJs in her own party, and should strive for a cross-party compromise, even if that is a second vote.

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