PM limps on with UK still in Brexit gridlock
Even though Theresa May won the Conservative leadership confidence vote, the result — with a larger-than-anticipated 117 of her party's MPs dissenting — means she remains in a politically precarious position with massive Brexit challenges ahead.
In this sense, Wednesday’s vote only “kicks the can down the road,” despite the high political drama of the last few days. Fundamentally, the UK is therefore likely to remain in Brexit gridlock into the new year period.
To be sure, Wednesday’s vote had some good news for May. The 63 percent of Conservative MP votes that May won is around the same as the 66 percent that then-Prime Minister John Major got in 1995, when he fought a leadership contest. Major went on to serve about another two years in Downing Street, which underlines that, in normal circumstances, May could survive as PM for some time.
In part, this is because there cannot now be another Conservative leadership challenge for 12 months. Yet May could still be forced to depart in the first few months of 2019 in what is an enormously difficult Brexit context. She acknowledged this after winning the confidence vote, in what she said had been a “long and challenging day.”
One key reason May survived is that she pledged to step down before the next general election, which is currently scheduled for 2022. In this way, the prime minister won support from some MPs who believe she is an election liability, but deemed that she is the best person in to try to get a Brexit withdrawal deal in the coming months after two years of negotiations.
One possible trigger for her departure, for instance, could be a parliamentary “no-confidence vote” — as opposed to the intra-Conservative Party ballot that took place on Wednesday. Here, the official opposition Labour Party is considering its options following support for such a move from other parties, including the Scottish National Party.
With May at the European Council in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, she will return to London at the end of the week and must decide on her new strategy to get the withdrawal deal over the line.
As she acknowledged on Monday, if the vote had gone ahead as planned on Tuesday it would have lost by a “significant margin,” probably of between 100 and 200 votes. In these circumstances, it will take a massive political effort to get it over the line in the new year.
Despite May’s victory on Wednesday, she is, if anything, even more politically isolated than before.
For, despite May’s victory, she is, if anything, even more politically isolated than before, after not being backed by around a third of Conservative MPs. This underlines she is now besieged, and getting her agreement through parliament looks harder than ever.
Technically, May has said that the rescheduled vote could be held at any date before Jan. 21, which she said was the last date possible under existing legislation. However, some parliamentary authorities argue that the vote could in fact be as late as March 28, given the March 29 date for the UK to leave the EU.
The specific challenge she faces is that she is being assailed from both the political right by those who favor a harder exit with a Canada-style deal, and those from the left of her position who either favor a softer Norway-style Brexit or even remaining in the EU.
In this context, and the febrile political climate in Westminster, there is growing support for a national referendum on the terms of any Brexit withdrawal deal, whether May’s or a harder or softer version. In October, an estimated 600,000 to 700,000 people marched in London for the right to have such a “people’s vote” and there is growing momentum behind this, which could include an option of remaining in the EU.
The campaign for a referendum has public support from three of the four living former prime ministers — Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major. They all argue that such an outcome is now potentially the only way to decide the issue, given the impasse in Parliament.
What this all underlines is the continuing disagreement within the populace and political elites over Brexit. This is not just a Leave versus Remain debate because even those who voted to exit did so for diverse and sometimes divergent reasons, which makes fashioning support for a withdrawal agreement very difficult.
And the continuing divisions within the electorate on these issues are underlined in polls, which now generally show more people favoring EU membership than not, and the country split over whether maintaining access to the European Single Market (akin to a Norway-style deal) or being able to limit migration (as a Canada-style deal would allow) should be the key objective in Brexit negotiations.
Taken overall, Britain remains badly divided and heading toward what could still be a hard, disorderly Brexit that would see no withdrawal deal agreed. This could see an unprecedented breakdown in relations with its European neighbors, trading partners and allies, with potentially significant political and economic consequences.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.