A sip of water. A beaming smile. ‘The result is that the Parliamentary party does have confidence in the Prime Minister’, announced Graham Brady to a huge cheer and rancorous applause that echoed around Committee Room 14. ‘200MPs voted for the Prime Minister and 117 against’. A more muted applause followed, a distant exclamation of surprise could be heard.
The different reactions to the result, as it was read aloud by the Head of the 1922 Backbench Committee, are illustrative of the problems the Conservative Party and the Prime Minister now face. The headline is a victory. But go any deeper than that and the PM is far far from secure in the long term.
The result provided enough votes for Theresa May to survive, a majority of 83, whilst not providing the margin of victory her supporters wanted in order to kill the group of Tory hardline Brexiters (the ERG) and the influence they hold over her Government. Most significantly. the result leaves the parliamentary arithmetic in a position where her Brexit deal still remains unlikely to pass through the Commons.
However the 117 votes against May suggests that opposition to her stretches wider than the ERG and possibly into the middle ground of the Tory Party. The numbers imply that May has lost the support of around 62 per cent of her non-payroll vote — the number of Conservatives not holding ministerial jobs or that are members of the Government; for instance, as a Principle Private Secretary or PPS. It is this that is arguably most damaging to May as it suggests the middle ground is starting to move away from supporting her and it is exactly these Tory MPs, not caught between the fervent Brexit and remain ideologues, who she would hope to persuade to back her Brexit deal when brought in front of Parliament. This narrower than expected majority obtained even with the promise by May to the Conservative Party that she would not fight the next general election.
After the result, Theresa May walked out of Number 10 and with a nervous, tired, and at times stuttering voice said:
‘I’m pleased to have received the backing of my colleagues’
But then admitted:
‘a significant number of colleagues did cast a vote against me, and I have listened to what they said. I will be seeking legal and political assurances that will assuage the concerns that members of Parliament have over the Backstop issue’.
In her only message to her critics, May one again tried to persuade MPs that she will aim to renegotiate the most controversial area of her withdrawal deal; the backstop, beginning with her trip to Brussels. However, the EU looks unlikely to budge, saying the withdrawal deal is not open for renegotiation. This week’s reports though, suggest that concessions over the backstop would be a statement of reassurance from the EU to the UK that they are prepared to negotiate a free trade deal even if the Irish backstop came into force at the end of the transition period — emphasising the temporary nature of the backstop. However, the DUP maintain that the backstop must go, otherwise they will not back the deal, and for Tory MPs any reassurances over the backstop are unlikely to change their votes if they are not legally binding — and that is the toughest challenge for May.
The result leaves Westminster in stalemate. The deal looks even more unlikely to pass through the Commons, and the chances of gaining significant concessions from the EU, that would convince critics otherwise, look poor.
In terms of Ms May’s ability to govern, that too remains unclear. Jacob Rees-Mogg, head of ERG, said the PM should go to the Palace and resign as she is unable to push legislation through Parliament. After such a public show of opposition it seems more likely that the Brexit stalemate will spread to domestic policies as well, causing an impasse in Parliament.
One way to break this impasse, whether after Brexit deal defeat or continuing domestic stalemate, would be a no confidence vote. At this stage though, Labour seem reluctant to table one, wary of losing the vote, and this is because the DUP insist that they would back the PM in the event of such a vote. The only way for Corbyn to achieve a victory would be to secure the backing of the DUP — a possibility if the backstop remains in the deal. Still, even the ERG seem currently unprepared to bring down the Government in order to remove May and her Brexit deal.
And so the impasse continues. Theresa May is still the Prime Minister and Parliament is still against her Brexit deal. The PM tried to use the support of the public in Downing Street, saying ‘we owe it to the people to put their priorities first’, in order to persuade MPs to back her Government. This is similar to her strategy before the cancelled Brexit deal vote and, as then, it looks unlikely to succeed.
The drama and febrility of the confidence motion has removed the immediate threat of a leadership contest from May; she cannot be challenged for another 12 months. However, the facts are the same. Over a third of the Tory party do not back her as PM, and wish to remove her; a majority in Parliament opposes her Brexit deal; and, the EU continue to withhold the concessions needed to win over opponents to the deal. And so we have that stalemate scenario, suspending gloomily over the Government and country.
Without a resignation from May or a dramatic change in the negotiating stance of the EU, the chances of a no deal Brexit increase, as do those of a second referendum and a general election. The most likely outcome, helped by the Dominic Grieve amendment that gave MPs more control in the event of the Government’s deal being defeated, could be a pivot towards a softer Brexit — that would win the support of some Labour MPs , but would entail May sacrificing her fiercest personal red line: ending the freedom of movement. Until then no side has enough power to take control, and yet, all are too powerful to be fully defeated. Stalemate.