Wednesday’s confidence vote among Conservative Party lawmakers in the U.K. was a pyrrhic victory for Prime Minister Theresa May. While she won by a comfortable margin, 200 votes to 117, and cannot face another leadership challenge for a year, the fact that more than one-third of Tory MPs don’t support her suggests that she will have little luck corralling them into voting for her Brexit deal.
To secure even that mixed blessing, May had to make two promises to her party, including one her rivals don’t believe and another she almost certainly can’t keep. First, she said she would not seek to lead the party into the next scheduled general election in 2022. Second, she said she would wrangle a legally binding commitment from the E.U. that the backstop arrangement for the Irish border contained in the deal would not become permanent and that the bloc would not use it as leverage against the U.K. in future trade negotiations.
The backstop, which would come into effect after December 2020 if the U.K. and E.U. fail to ink a permanent trade agreement, would preserve a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by creating a temporary “special customs area” for the entire U.K., allowing it to remain a de facto participant in the E.U. customs union, while Northern Ireland would continue to follow some of the rules of the E.U. single market. This would necessitate some checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K.
The hard-Brexit wing of the Tories fear that the backstop would violate a key principle of Brexit by effectively keeping the U.K. in the customs union and forcing it to keep following the union’s rules. Because the U.K. would not be able to end this arrangement unilaterally, the Brexiteers fear the Europeans could use the threat of it to force the U.K. into a less-advantageous final trade deal. Meanwhile, May’s Northern Irish coalitionists, the Democratic Unionist Party, consider the backstop unacceptable as they say it would undermine the unity of the U.K. by creating a separate set of trade rules for Northern Ireland.
The confidence vote was called within two days of May’s decision to postpone a vote in Parliament scheduled for Tuesday on the draft agreement she had reached with E.U. negotiators in November. Between the Tory defectors, the DUP, and opposition MPs from Labour and the Scottish National Party who are opposed to Brexit entirely and would love to sink her government, May was looking at a humiliating defeat.
To mollify her backbenchers, May is now frantically trying to get her E.U. counterparts to agree to some kind of enforceable guarantee that the backstop won’t be permanent. The trouble is, these leaders have no interest in making further concessions to salvage the deal they agreed to last month. The fact that May can’t sell her legislature on the deal is her problem, not theirs; they are tired of compromising their interests to assuage British anxieties about a divorce they didn’t want; and some don’t believe there’s anything they can say that will satisfy the hard-Brexit crowd. So far, all they are willing to grant her is a declaration that they will look into giving Britain more assurances, and Ireland didn’t even agree to that statement.
Even if May manages to get the assurances she’s looking for, European diplomats are right to be skeptical of whether they will satisfy the Euro-skeptic Tories. Arch-Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson would rather have no deal at all than a deal that doesn’t give them everything they want, and they already know they can get the hardest Brexit of all just by preventing May from getting her deal through Parliament before March 29, when the U.K.’s withdrawal from the E.U. becomes official.
Rees-Mogg is now making the case that Wednesday’s confidence vote was a “terrible result” for May and is pushing for her to resign. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon used the spectacle of the vote to make the case that the Tories are in disarray, harming the country with their internal power politics, and need to be chucked out of government ASAP. May’s backers, on the other hand, emphasized how irresponsible it was to attempt a political coup at such a critical moment; Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the exchequer, decried the “extremists” who called the vote in his public declaration of support.
Indeed, Johnson and Rees-Mogg are extremists, but fortunately for the rest of Britain, they have no clue how to actually implement their extremist vision. In a way, calling the confidence vote but not winning it was the best outcome for them, as it allows them to keep their hands off the wheel when Britain crashes out of the E.U. while maintaining the fiction that one of them could have made a better deal.
Still, to anyone watching with eyes unclouded by right-wing ideology, these men come off looking like petulant children preventing the only adult in the room from doing her job because they’re not getting their way. May kept her post on Wednesday not so much because she is an accomplished and beloved leader as because, as Guardian columnist Martin Kettle puts it, her opponents “are genuinely hopeless at politics” and “cannot, will not, take responsibility for practical action in government.”
They appear to believe that there is a Commons majority for their faith-based, crash-out, free-at-last, ourselves-alone Brexit if only they can install a true believer and bring the DUP back onside. The vote confirmed that is not true. The naivety is breathtaking. Such a Tory leader would lose any Brexit bill or confidence vote.
Nor would a Conservative Party led by the likes of Johnson or Rees-Mogg necessarily fare better in a general election than one led by May. Indeed, polling suggests that all of the hard-Brexit backers floated as successors to May would do worse. May is not very popular at the moment, but neither are any of her Tory rivals or, for that matter, the opposition: Corbyn has even less popular support than May and has lost his lead over her in head-to-head polls this year. In fact, no politician in the U.K. can currently claim to enjoy a popular mandate to lead the country. Among the best-known names in British politics, pretty much everyone has a negative approval rating right now.
In other words, Theresa May is the worst possible prime minister, except for all the alternatives. It’s a fitting position for someone trying to close a deal that she knows is the best possible deal, but still a bad one. There’s no majority in Parliament for her plan, but there’s also no majority for either of the alternatives: another referendum or a no-deal Brexit. Britain is still looking at an avoidable catastrophe at the end of March that neither the public nor their representatives would vote for, all because the Brexiteers continue to pretend that there’s a better deal out there to be made.
As centrist think-tanker James Kirkup commented at the Spectator on Tuesday, nobody in Britain’s political class has been honest with the public about Brexit, including May. Although she herself voted Remain, she has adopted the language of the Leave camp, framed it as an opportunity to Make Great Britain Great Again, and downplayed the compromises it will entail. Now that the deal is on paper, the prime minister insists that it’s the best deal Britain’s going to get; she’s right, but what she stops short of saying is that it’s still going to be kind of terrible, because that’s what 52 percent of Britons voted for.