Theresa May survives leadership vote but Brexit mayhem remains

After a day and night of high political drama in London, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May comfortably survived a confidence vote in her leadership of the Conservative Party. As Britain woke up to news that the required number of 48 letters from Conservative MPs had been received to trigger the vote, May went on the defensive to rally her party and save her job. Emerging from 10 Downing Street to speak to the waiting media early on Wednesday morning, Prime Minister May stated unequivocally that she would fight the vote “with everything I’ve got” and that changing leader now would put “our country’s future at risk.” With steely determination, she made it clear that she stood ‘ready to finish the job.”

Throughout the day, May valiantly tried to shore up support. Shortly before the vote took place, the prime minister told her Conservative Party colleagues that she will not contest the next general election in 2022 as party leader or prime minister but wowed to push through with Brexit. May needed the backing of at least 159 votes to survive as party leader and ultimately to remain on as prime minister. In the end, she secured 200 votes while 117 voted against her. The result is decisive enough for May to continue on as party leader and prime minister. According to the party’s own rules, no further leadership challenge can be brought against her for at least 12 months.

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The vote on her leadership comes days after the government postponed a vote on the withdrawal agreement facing certain defeat in parliament. Her short lived years as prime minister will now slowly draw to a close but the Brexit dilemma continues unabated. She will now go down in history as Britain’s Brexit prime minister while simultaneously becoming a lame duck leader of a country sharply divided over whether to leave the EU and to leave on what terms.

There is no doubt that Theresa May has the toughest job in Britain, perhaps the toughest job of any EU leader, but her sceptics should be under no illusions about her steely determination to fight on, to get a Brexit deal through parliament and bring closure to Britain’s erratic 45-year relationship with Brussels.

What is next for May’s Brexit plan? To achieve this closure, significant obstacles and uncertainties remain. The confidence vote today make no changes to parliamentary arithmetic; it simply exposes the level of opposition in May’s own party to her government-backed plan. There is currently no majority in the House of Commons in favour of the negotiated deal but equally there is no majority in parliament for a ‘no deal’ scenario. May has promised that the withdrawal agreement will face a parliamentary vote before January 21 assuming the deal is improved upon to garner wider support. May met with German, Dutch and EU leaders yesterday with a view to seeing what if anything can be done to modify the deal to placate the various factions in parliament. Yet, there is very little appetite in Brussels to reopen the tortuous Brexit talks, and it seems highly unlikely that replacing May as UK PM would improve the withdrawal agreement. In the event that May’s plan is rejected by parliament when it is finally put to a vote, the country is then staring at two stark options. The first is a second referendum on the deal, something the government has repeatedly ruled out. There is a growing cross-party consensus calling for a ‘people’s vote’ where voters would be given three options on a ballot paper: to either accept the deal, accept no deal and exit on March 29 or remain in the EU. Yet, it is not clear if there is a majority in parliament to vote on a new mandate for a second referendum. The second option is the ‘no deal’ option where parliament rejects the only deal and Britain crashes out of the EU at the end of March. Economic chaos would likely follow.

It was always going to be a challenge, not only to negotiate a Brexit divorce deal but to get that deal through a divided Conservative Party and an even more divided British parliament. May’s dilemma has been made all the more difficult because no leader has ever had to navigate a country out of the world’s largest trade bloc in the EU’s 60-year history. Theresa May might have survived as PM today but the future of her Brexit withdrawal agreement remains far from certain. The political chaos in Britain looks set to continue.

Michael J. Geary is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He is also an associate professor of European history at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.