After scrapping the Brexit vote, Thresa May’s leadership has never been more tenuous
By Lucia Osborne-Crowley
Even if Theresa May were in a position to renegotiate the Brexit deal, it’s not clear that she will survive as Prime Minister long enough to do so. (Reuters)
At the 11th hour, British Prime Minister Theresa May shocked the country by postponing the House of Commons vote on her controversial Brexit deal.
It’s been three weeks since Mrs May negotiated the deal with the 27 other EU member countries, and attention has been keenly focused on whether the deal would pass the all-important parliamentary vote.
The Prime Minister has struggled against waning support from the public, the Parliament and her own party since she announced the deal she had reached with the EU.
The surprise change of plan raises all sorts of questions about what’s next for Brexit. But it’s also time to ask ourselves, what’s next for Theresa May?
An unpopular deal
The last-minute decision is a clear sign that she knew she would lose by a large margin. On Monday in Westminster, some reporters were estimating she could lose by 100 votes or more.
Mrs May did not specify when the vote would take place, saying only that it would occur before January 21.
Criticism of the decision came thick and fast. As Mrs May entered the House on Monday afternoon, Labour MPs shouted “weak” and “chaos”. The Speaker of the House challenged her, saying she ought to have consulted the chamber before making the decision.
The Guardian’s editorial team quickly renounced Mrs May’s attempt to save her leadership, describing her behaviour as contemptuous of the parliamentary process.
Unhappy MPs on all sides
The 585-page compromise that May agreed with the EU member countries was quickly derided when news of it arrived back to Westminster. Many MPs — from Labour, the DUP and from Mrs May’s own party — stated that they could not support the deal.
Ahead of the vote controversy, several ministers had resigned in protest over the deal. Many more MPs have begun whispering about a leadership spill.
This left the Prime Minister in an unenviable situation: for the withdrawal agreement to take effect, it must to be passed by the British Parliament. It very quickly looked like Mrs May wouldn’t have the numbers to win a parliamentary vote.
For the past three weeks, Mrs May has been campaigning across the country and in her own party room in an attempt to sell the deal against a rising tide of opposition.
But Mrs May insisted she could survive the turmoil. And she was right — thus far, her party has failed to rally enough MPs to force a leadership spill or a no confidence vote. That could change very quickly.
Because it was widely reported that May didn’t have the numbers to win, rumours began circulating on Monday that she would postpone the vote. Mrs May and her staff insisted this was not an option — until 24 hours before the vote was scheduled to take place.
Will May live to fight another day?
Mrs May’s stated intention for delaying the vote is to allow her to go back to the negotiating table with the EU countries and work out a better deal. But the EU has said categorically that it will not renegotiate the substance of the arrangement, so critics have said that any changes the Prime Minister might make would be cosmetic.
Even if Mrs May were in a position to renegotiate the deal on borrowed time, it’s not clear that she will survive as Prime Minister long enough to do so.
Her leadership feels more tenuous than ever: on top of mounting criticism from Parliament and the media, her decision to delay caused the pound to drop to an 18-month low and caused the Confederation of British Industry to warn that the economy may slide into a national crisis.
A man holds an anti-Brexit sign on Westminster Bridge in London on July 13, 2018. (Reuters: Yves Herman)
Four things could happen next
Meanwhile, MPs have ramped up calls to trigger a leadership spill or introduce a vote of no confidence in the prime minister to the floor of the House of Commons.
There are four ways this could play out in the UK Parliament.
Firstly, it’s possible that Mrs May will voluntarily resign as Prime Minister, triggering a leadership spill. However she has remained stoic in the face of mounting challenges thus far, so it’s not clear that she’s willing to throw the towel in just yet.
But if Mrs May doesn’t step down, the Conservative Party can force a leadership spill. This is another tricky area, as there have been many false alarms for forced leadership spills in recent weeks. A spill can only be initiated if 48 conservative MPs sign letters of no confidence.
So far, the pro-spill camp have not been able to clear the 48 signatures mark. But judging by reports emerging from Westminster after the vote delay, that dial could well have shifted.
If this were to occur, we can expect MPs in the “hard Brexit” camp such as Boris Johnson to throw their hat in the ring alongside “remainers” such as Amber Rudd. It’s not clear at this stage who, if anyone, has the numbers to win the leadership.
Could Jeremy Corbyn launch a no confidence vote against the Conservative government? (AP: Francisco Seco)
What about Labour?
Another alternative is that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will propose a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. Of course, for this to pass, members of Mrs May’s own party would have to vote against her – but this doesn’t seem so far-fetched after Tuesday’s developments. As she is already leading a minority government, it would only take 10 or so conservative MPs voting against her for a no confidence motion to succeed.
If the motion passes, the parliamentary parties can each attempt to form a new government. In today’s chamber, that would most likely take the form of Mr Corbyn’s Labour forging alliances with smaller parties to form a minority government.
Mr Corbyn told reporters on Tuesday that he is ready to take control of the Parliament and will “reset” negotiations with the EU in hopes of a better deal. If this fails, Labour could instigate a “people’s vote” — a second referendum on the question of whether Britain should leave the EU.
If no party can form a government within 14 days of the no confidence vote, a general election is automatically triggered. Based on current polling, if a general election were held today it seems likely that the Labour Party would win — which takes us back to the possibility of a fresh negotiation with Mr Corbyn at the helm, or a second referendum.
There’s no telling at this stage exactly which of these scenarios will play out in Westminster this week. There are numerous possible outcomes.
But one thing that seems increasingly likely is that none of them will feature a government led by Theresa May.
Lucia Osborne-Crowley is a journalist covering law, gender and politics, and a legal researcher specialising in constitutional law.