December 12, 2018
UK Prime Minister Theresa May survived a December 12 attempted coup to unseat her by her own Conservative Party. But with no clear path ahead concerning Britain’s exit from the European Union, she’s only navigated the first few yards of a mile-wide minefield. 

On Brexit, her own party is split, parliament is split, and the country is split. There is no prospective outcome – whether for May’s deal to leave the EU, or for some putative new deal, or for no deal whatsoever, or for remaining within the EU – that commands a natural majority. 

The Conservative Party split was shown by the fact that 117 of her own 317 members of parliament voted against her leadership in an internal party confidence vote. Her personal authority was diminished, since she promised, in the course of this one-day whirlwind leadership campaign and vote, that she would not stay on as leader through to the next scheduled general election in 2022.

In formal terms, she can plough on. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Philip Hammond said earlier in the day, “one vote clearly is enough.”

This is because party rules state that if an incumbent leader survives such a challenge as this, they cannot be challenged as party leader for at least a year.

But she can – and almost certainly will – be challenged as prime minister. This is because her Conservative Party does not command a parliamentary majority while her policy on Brexit is opposed not only by a vast number of MPs, including almost all opposition members, but also by around 100 of her own MPs. 

The next mines she must avoid are the timing of a vote on the Brexit agreement she reached with the European Union in November and demands for a vote of no confidence in her government in the House of Commons.

Appearing at Prime Minister’s Questions today – when she put on a strong performance for a leader under attack from her own side – she consistently dodged all questions as to just when Parliament would be allowed to hold a promised “meaningful vote” on the outcome of UK negotiations to leave the EU. Time and again she was urged to hold the vote – which was due to be held on December 11 but which she pulled after three days of debate – before Parliament recesses for the Christmas break at the end of next week. 

The decision to postpone the vote not only constituted the trigger for the leadership challenge within her own party, but also strengthened opposition support for a vote of no confidence in the government as a whole. The Scottish Nationalists would like such a vote to be held as soon as possible. But the key to its timing lies with the main opposition party, Labour, which wants to be sure there is a real chance of not just calling, but winning, such a vote so that it might then trigger an early general election.

For this to happen, Labour needs to peel off a number of rebel Conservative MPs or members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which officially has what is called a ‘Confidence and Supply’ arrangement to support the government.

Then there’s Brexit itself. May may have won some space for maneuver by holding further talks with EU heads of government and European Commission officials concerning ‘clarification’ of the agreement concluded in November, but she has met a firm rebuff concerning the wording of the agreement itself, which EU leaders say cannot be changed.

At the heart of this issue is the Irish backstop: a fallback plan that would maintain an open border on the island of Ireland until such time as the UK and the EU can conclude a new trade agreement to replace the UK’s existing membership of the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market. Both the UK and the EU acknowledge the need to avoid the creation of a “hard border” – notably customs posts along 310-mile border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland to the south. The problem is that there is no agreement on how to ensure this without either the UK as a whole, or Northern Ireland as some kind of separate economic entity, remaining indefinitely in a customs union with the Republic of Ireland. 

How May will attempt to defuse this bomb remains unknown. One of her own senior ministers, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, warned today that she might even lose the support of her own cabinet if she failed to resolve the backstop conundrum. “It’s very difficult to support the deal if we don’t get changes to the backstop. I don’t think it will get through. I’m not even sure if the cabinet will agree to have it put to the House of Commons.”  Then there is the time-bomb caused by her own decision to trigger Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which allows a member state to leave within two years. When she did this in March 2017 – with the support of the official Labour opposition as well as of most of her own MPs – she set March 29, 2019 as the date on which the UK would leave the EU. 

But before that she has to ensure that parliament passes the necessary legislation to put her November agreement – and any changes she might yet secure – into law. By pulling the vote scheduled for December 11 – a vote she looked likely to lose overwhelmingly – she now has to fall back on a very, very tight parliamentary schedule which is supposed to conclude no later than January 21, even if her original proposals are voted down by parliament.

So it looks as if she may very well have to ask the European Union to stop the clock and allow more time for Parliament to sort out its own approach to Brexit.

Her victory in tonight’s vote should mean that she can now challenge the arch-Brexiteers who want to leave the EU without any agreement. But she still has to find a way to convince waverers in her own party to back her and to entice sufficient opposition members to support her, in order to get a deal through parliament. So far, she has made no significant attempt to reach out to the opposition. 

As prime minister, she could take note that the parliamentary arithmetic has not changed as a result of her internal battle to retain the leadership of her own party. And since parliament is itself divided, the clamor for a second referendum gets ever louder. This issue is perhaps the most explosive of all. There are widely conflicting views on what would happen if Parliament were to decide that the only way to deal with the consequences of the original 2016 referendum, which resulted in a 52-48% split in favor of leaving the EU, was to ask the people what they thought now that the issue has been massively debated and the complexities of leaving set out for all to see.

If a second referendum were to be held, there are issues concerning what the question might be. Would it be just a vote between May’s deal and staying on in the EU or would there be an option to leave with no deal at all. And it would probably take six months, under UK electoral arrangements to hold such a vote, so if parliament insisted – against her will – on holding a referendum then the prime minister would have to ask the EU for an extension to the Article 50 deadline. 

This would be humiliating. But she has already acknowledged that she now expects to be no more than an interim leader who will carry on until the Brexit issue is resolved one way or the other.

Before voting started, May’s office indicated she was only looking for a limited reprieve and that this vote should not be seen as a bid to stay on as prime minister until the next general election, which is officially scheduled for 2022. In a statement that the prime minister herself was understood to have echoed when addressing MPs just before tonight’s vote, her spokesman said: “This vote isn’t about who leads the party into the next election, it’s about whether it makes sense to change leader at this point in the Brexit negotiations.”

And after the vote was announced, one of her leading critics, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said that if May failed to get her deal through parliament then she should resign as prime minister. Clearly the party’s internal war is by no means over.

John M. Roberts is a UK-based senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and Global Energy Center.

RELATED CONTENT