With these oft-quoted words William Hague once described the Conservative Party and the last few weeks, originating in the announcement of the draft Withdrawal Agreement, have only revealed this once more. Theresa May’s survival, by 200 votes to 117 of her own Conservative MPs, represents a hollow victory, conditional on an impending resignation before the next election and only illustrates the issue of Europe has once again ravaged Britain’s ruling party. Leaders have received similar shows of confidence and resigned, and thus the jockeying for position between potential successors has already been unleashed. However, with the ship of state heavily damaged, it still might strand on the rocks of a hostile Parliament until a final Withdrawal Agreement is accepted. The crisis is far from over.
The last week in British politics has undoubtedly been the hardest period in the career of Theresa May, breaking open the logical procession of events leading to Brexit. While it has taken almost two years, EU and British negotiators seem to have assembled the only agreement that would logically fit the red lines established by both groups, but as General Von Moltke said “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. It is contact with May’s enemies in Parliament, the Brexiteer Right and Remainer Left of her own party, as well as every single opposition party (including her Northern Irish allies), that has scuppered her carefully assembled Withdrawal Agreement. With the suspension of the debate and vote on Monday, the insecurity of Brexit has only ratcheted up even more, with May sent running to Europe to get concession on the so-called “backstop”. In the face of these meetings, facing assertion after assertion from EU leaders that there would be no move on the Withdrawal Agreement, the regicides in the far-right ERG (European Research Group, led by the reactionary MP Jacob Rees-Mogg) drew their daggers and took a stab at May on Wednesday.
The Vote of No Confidence, held by the 317 Conservative MPs, would have required a simple majority to pass, forcing a leadership election, but only made 117, slightly over a third of the electorate. As Brexiteers were quick to state after the vote was announced, this does represent over half of the backbenchers, with around 160 MPs actually on the Government payroll and thus, implicitly loyal to May. However, she felt it necessary to promise that she would resign at some point before the next scheduled general election. In recent British political history, the announcement that one will no longer fight a next election tends to initiate the ‘lame duck’ phase of leadership, as happened with David Cameron and Tony Blair before him. Thus the terminal phase of May’s career has been initiated, with the sole role of finalising the Brexit talks and then inevitably making way for new leadership, probably Boris Johnson, Sajid Javid or Dominic Raab.
However these concessions have no impact whatsoever on her Brexit deal, which still stands to lose substantially in the Commons and neither does it seem that the European Union will budge sufficiently to give her the numbers. This all leaves Britain on the precipice of a no deal, an extension of Article 50, or some substantial move in the negotiating position of the Government, perhaps attempting to conciliate Labour MPs through a softer approach. Thus Wednesday’s attempt at a Conservative Party coup failed, but only leaves Theresa May in a politically emasculated position, perpetuating the crisis that still leaves open the chance of a successful Vote of No Confidence in Commons. Only time will tell how Britain limps onward in the negotiations, with a political landscape as fragmented as it has been in recent memory and a Prime Minister seemingly mortally wounded.
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