London, England – Britain’s beleaguered Prime Minister Theresa May has defeated an attempted coup by Conservative MPs unhappy at her handling of Brexit but has been politically wounded and compelled to signal that she will step down before an election in 2022.
Her win on Wednesday evening by 200 votes to 117 in a secret ballot was announced by Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, to the applause of loyalists packing committee Room 14 in the House of Commons.
The prime minister has come under heavy criticism since cancelling a parliamentary vote on Tuesday on her deal to exit the European Union – a move that prompted MPs opposed to her proposal to launch a plot to overthrow her – and the outcome of last night’s confidence motion is unlikely to affect the parliamentary arithmetic that prompted her to shelve the vote.
Maddy Thimont Jack, a researcher at the Institute for Government in London, said: “The fundamentals of Brexit haven’t changed – Theresa May still has to try and get her deal through parliament, she still has to have a meaningful vote, she still has to pass the legislation – so the scale of the challenges hasn’t changed.”
Paul Webb, professor of politics at the University of Sussex, said the vote reflects only what is happening inside the Conservative parliamentary party at the moment.
“That’s a very febrile electorate and possibly a duplicitous one. But, on the face of it, Theresa May will still not have a majority for her Brexit deal and this is unlikely to make a lot of difference to that.”
The Conservative leader cannot now face another no-confidence vote among her own MPs for 12 months – giving her time to see through the infighting over Brexit.
She is talking to EU leaders on Thursday in an effort to make headway in securing concessions over the deeply unpopular Northern Ireland “backstop” that fuelled the revolt.
But Wednesday’s vote is also unlikely to impact those talks – EU leaders have repeatedly insisted that they will not change their draft deal reached with London.
Professor Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe academic think-tank on Brexit, said: “It does not affect their attitude towards concessions because for them this is a legal matter, not a political matter. For them this is just a matter of law, the backstop is the backstop, there’s no going round it.”
The result of Wednesday’s vote was a temporary relief for May, allowing her to paint 200 votes as a triumph because this exceeds the 199 she won in her original leadership ballot in 2016.
However, her victory was at the price of her premiership – a majority of Conservative MPs backed her only after she signalled she would step down before the 2022 election.
Moreover, May’s win will do little to heal divisions within the wider Conservative party: The European Research Group of hardline Brexiteers behind last night’s vote are also claiming victory.
The vote also weakens the PM even further in the House of Commons, which is still smarting from her last-minute decision to push back the Brexit vote until January.
Professor Menon said: “What we know in the structural sense is that we’re exactly back where we started – she has got a deal that no one likes that there aren’t the numbers to get through parliament.”
David Jeffery, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Liverpool who has studied the Conservative Party, said the vote of confidence in May could signal an acceptance among most of her MPs that her deal is the best they are going to get.
“A lot of the tweets in support of her yesterday were about ‘getting on with the job’ of Brexit – a lot of them want it over and done with so the next election scheduled in 2022 can be possibly on a different playing field, it can be in a post-Brexit environment and they can talk about other issues that they might be less divided on.”
May still remains vulnerable to a no-confidence vote within the House in the government itself, something the opposition Labour Party has been poised to launch.
Thimont Jack said: “The confidence vote illustrates what we already knew to be the case, but at the same time, because you can’t trigger another confidence vote for 12 months, so it does give May some breathing room. But of course, the political pressure doesn’t go away for her.”
The scale of disillusionment has prompted some to suggest that hardline Conservatives who rebelled against May might now be prepared to join the opposition to unseat her – the so-called “nuclear option”.
Webb said: “There might some elements of the European Research Group who are so disillusioned and angry that if Labour called a vote of no confidence they actually could either abstain on that or maybe even vote with the opposition.”
Questions are also being asked about May’s promise not to lead the Conservatives into an election in 2022. MPs have not forgiven her for an historic miscalculation in calling the 2017 general election in which the party lost seats and ended up relying on the small Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to retain power.
May’s sternest opponents within the ERG hinted that they did not entirely believe she will stick to her pledge to go before 2022.
Webb said: “If they were forced to go into an election now with her as a leader that puts her in an extremely difficult position to campaign – which would be very difficult for the Conservative Party. But it would also be very difficult to find anyone to replace her.”
By carefully avoiding offering a specific date on which she would resign, while powering ahead to deliver her own vision of a “softer Brexit”, May risks deepening Conservative divisions as the economic pain Brexit is likely to cause hits voters.
A golden rule of British politics is that voters do not vote for divided parties.
Jeffery believes, however, that despite their divisions, the Conservatives can still go into the next election with a chance of winning.
“They are very lucky in the fact that they are against an equally divided Labour Party. At the moment they are being saved by their own opponents.”
Menon pointed out that voters’ “memories tend to be quite short” and the things that stick are the things that affect them directly.
“But this is different, this is just pantomime, and there is an element of ‘A plague on all your houses’. The divisions in the Labour Party are equally bitter, equally deep.”
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, which has previously threatened to table a no-confidence motion against May, said Wednesday’s vote changes nothing.
If the next general election is in 2022, Webb said, a lot can happen before then.
“But if it is an election any time soon, notwithstanding the doubts the electorate has about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, I think Labour would win it.”