Theresa May wins confidence vote, loses over one-third of her party support

British Prime Minister Theresa May survived a confidence vote with the support of 200 lawmakers from her party Wednesday. However, 117 lawmakers, more than a third of the Tories, dissented indicating a split within the conservative party over the Brexit deal. May, who needed 159 votes to win the vote, cannot be challenged for another year.

With Britain due to leave the EU on March 29, Wednesday’s vote has suddenly opened up possibilities including a potentially disorderly exit with no deal or even another referendum on the country’s membership.

Why the confidence vote was called?

The confidence vote was called after weeks of discord over the Brexit deal when at least 48 Conservative lawmakers submitted letters of protest challenging May’s leadership. Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee — the body that represents Conservative backbenchers — announced Wednesday that he had received more than the required number of letters to proceed with the confidence vote. May had cancelled a trip to Dublin where she had hoped to talk to her Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, about changes that might help build support in the British Parliament for her Brexit proposals. But it had already been clear that she was in deep waters, battered from multiple directions by her management of the European Union withdrawal.

What Theresa May said after winning?

After winning the confidence vote, May said she would get on with the job of pulling Britain out of the European Union. Speaking in Downing Street, the British PM said, “This has been a long and challenging day but at the end of it I am pleased to have received the backing of my colleagues in tonight’s ballot. Whilst I am grateful for that support, a significant number of colleagues did cast a vote against me and I have listened to what they said. Following this ballot, we now need to get on with the job of delivering Brexit for the British people and building a better future for this country. A Brexit that delivers on the vote that people gave, that brings back control of our money, our borders and our laws, that protects jobs, security and the Union, that brings the country back together rather than entrenching division. That must start here in Westminster, with politicians on all sides coming together and acting in the national interest.”

“For my part, I have heard what the House of Commons said about the Northern Ireland backstop and when I go to the European Council tomorrow I will be seeking legal and political assurances that will assuage the concerns that members of Parliament have on that issue. But while delivering Brexit is important, we also need to focus on the other issues that people feel are vital to them, that matter to them day-to-day, the issues that we came into politics to deal with. Building a stronger economy, delivering first-class public services, building the homes that families need. We owe it to people who put us here to put their priorities first. So here is our renewed mission: delivering the Brexit that people voted for, bringing the country back together, and building the country that truly works for everyone.”

What would have happened if Theresa May had lost?

In this case, May would no longer be the leader of the Conservative Party, and Brady would have begun the process to choose a successor. Lawmakers would have voted in rounds of secret ballots, with the least-popular candidate eliminated each time, until two contenders remain. Brady said he believed that part of the process could be done by the end of business next Thursday when Parliament is scheduled to break for the Christmas vacation. From the two top candidates, the final choice would have been left to around 120,000 members of the Conservative Party who would have voted by postal ballot. In 2005, the last time the Conservatives held such a postal ballot, it took around six weeks for a winner to emerge.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May prepares to speak outside 10 Downing Street after a confidence vote by Conservative Party Members of Parliament (MPs), in London, Britain. (REUTERS)
How did Conservative MPs react?

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who led calls for the confidence vote, said losing the support of a third of her MPs was a “terrible result for the prime minister” and asked her to resign. “It was “devastating” that more than half of backbenchers not serving in the government had abandoned the prime minister. In the cold light of day when people reflect on that number – 117 – it’s a massive number, far more than anyone was predicting. I think that will be very sobering for the prime minister. I think she needs to think very carefully about what she does now,” BBC quoted Brexit-backing Tory MP Mark Francois as saying.

What’s the Opposition’s take on the vote?

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Asserting that the vote had “changed nothing”, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “Theresa May has lost her majority in Parliament, her government is in chaos and she’s unable to deliver a Brexit deal that works for the country.”

He said the party will table a no-confidence motion that all MPs — not just Conservatives — will be able to vote in when they felt they had a chance of winning it, and forcing a general election. DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said his party, which helps keep Mrs May in power, was still concerned about the Irish backstop plan, which most MPs were against. “I don’t think this vote really changes anything very much in terms of the arithmetic,” he said according to the BBC.
What happened in the lead up to the vote?

In recent days, May suffered two embarrassing setbacks. Last week, the House of Commons found her government in contempt of Parliament — the first time any prime minister had been censured in that way — for failing to release the advice her government’s lawyers on Brexit. And on Monday, she postponed a vote on the Brexit agreement she had negotiated with the European Union, acknowledging that it would be defeated by “a significant margin.” In fact, lawmakers say, views on Brexit, which has dominated British politics for nearly three years, are so fragmented that no approach has majority support in Parliament, and probably not even among Conservatives.

What next?

On Thursday, she is scheduled to travel to Brussels to meet leaders of the 27 other European Union countries to try to and secure some reassurances that might help her win a vote on the Brexit deal. She has promised to allow lawmakers to decide the matter by January 21. If there is no agreement then, Britain could be facing a chaotic departure on March 29.

Also, in her last-minute pitch to her MPs before the vote, she promised to stand down as leader before the next scheduled election in 2022. While “in her heart” she wanted to fight another election as leader, she realised her party did not want her to. However, she resisted calls to name a firm date for her departure.

What is Brexit?
Brexit is Britain’s most significant political and economic decision since World War Two. Pro-Europeans fear the departure will weaken the West as it grapples with the US presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China. The outcome will shape Britain’s $2.8 trillion economy, have far-reaching consequences for the unity of the kingdom, and determine whether London keeps its place as one of the top two global financial centres. Supporters of Brexit admit there may be some short-term pain for Britain’s $2.9 trillion economy, but say it will prosper in the long term when it cuts ties from the EU, which they cast as a failing German-dominated experiment in European integration.