When Sir Graham Brady, the solid Yorkshire MP who chairs the 1922 Committee of Tory backbench MPs, announced the result of the vote of confidence on Theresa May as Tory leader Wednesday night, he did so in two installments. First, he announced that she had won, producing a loud cheer from May’s supporters in a general atmosphere of good humor and even hilarity. Then he announced the figures — 200 votes for May, 117 against her. That announcement was received with intakes of breath and a surprised silence. The effect was one of shock and alarm. Thursday morning, the newspaper headlines report a Pyrrhic victory for the prime minister that has solved nothing and left most things unsettled. In fact, the vote leaves things more unsettled than before.
First, all Tory MPs, ministers, and backbenchers alike voted. But they voted in very different ways. May’s “defeated” critics, mainly on the Brexiteer wing of the Conservative party, got 37 percent of the total vote but something approaching two-thirds of the non-payroll vote (a.k.a. backbenchers). Her victory was in part a result of the “bloating” of ministerial ranks — exactly the kind of thing denounced as corruption by earlier generations of reformers. What that says, however, is that a different leader with different policies would be able to command quite a number of the same votes.
Now, compare those figures with previous challenges to prime ministers. Much has been made of the fact that May did less well on this occasion than John Major when he contrived a similar vote on himself in 1995. That’s a fair comparison, but the disparity was not massive, and Tory divisions over the EU were not then so deep and bitter as today. Brexit introduces a new instability into this situation. It’s the kind of issue that splits parties and changes minds. Compare this result therefore with something of equal weight — namely, the vote against Neville Chamberlain in the 1940 Norway debate that led Churchill to power. As with May last night, the Chamberlain government won the debate, getting 281 votes, but what changed history was that 101 government supporters either voted against him (41) or abstained (60). Statistically, Chamberlain did better in less favorable circumstances than May — the Brits had just lost Norway — but he was still out of power a week later.
Brexit too prompted a major rebellion that took May, the cabinet, and the whips by surprise. Julian Smith, the chief whip, had been telling May and the cabinet that he would deliver the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement on Tuesday without difficulty right up to the day before. Irony piled upon irony, he had invited television-documentary cameras into the inner sanctum of the Whips’ Office to record a success that turned into a disaster. It didn’t end with that. He seems to have downplayed expectations (or simply gotten things wrong) on the scale of the rebellion last night. High-end forecasts were that the Brexiteers might go as high as 80 votes. In the event, they added 37 votes to that figures for a total of 117. The whips had lost control.
That’s a humiliation for Smith, who surely is not long for this world, but also a sign of much wider dissent than previously guessed. If 117 Tories rebelled, you can be sure that many more wanted to do so — that’s the way of the world — and that the whips won’t get control back anytime soon, and certainly not on the basis of the May policy. In particular, the whips’ calculation that the majority of the Tory benches are firm Remainers is looking decidedly shaky. Last night, that realization was what evoked intakes of breath and shocked surprise from the political correspondents and media pundits in the Committee Room. There’s a Remainer bias in the media, as is generally acknowledged, but the degree of contempt and dislike of Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson, David Davis, and Jacob Rees-Mogg goes much deeper than most media traits. It’s a blend of social resentment and (unjustified) intellectual snobbery, and it is provoked by the fact that its targets are in fact unusually talented and effective politicians. Hence the desire to make them small. But the media celebrated their downfall last night too soon, and as the figures sank in, the media realized that the Brexiteers had not lost the plot but moved up the field — which means that this is not the Remainer Parliament that most commentary describes but something much more unstable and uncertain.
How is that instability likely to play out — in Parliament, in Europe, and in Britain?
In Parliament, the first conclusion is that May cannot now get her Withdrawal Agreement bill through the House of Commons. If 117 Tory MPs have voted against her personally, she and Mr. Smith can hardly risk putting her signature dish before the House. That’s too large a Tory rebellion to be overcome by winning Labour or Liberal votes. Second, she told the Tory backbenchers’1922 Committee that she had given the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist party a veto on whatever policy she wants to pursue, and they will not be diffident about exercising it to prevent the Northern Ireland “backstop.” And, finally, since she promised to quit before the next election (in order to stay now), her clout is diminishing hourly.
In other words, May has been seriously wounded by this victory. Even though she can’t be challenged by Brexiteers in the backbenchers’ 1922 Committee, she is still in too weak a position to create a new majority for her favored non-Brexit deal or any other deal that Remainers might want. They are caught in a trap of their own making. When MPs passed the legislation to take Britain out of the EU last year, they established that Britain would leave the EU in March next year even if no post-Brexit deal with the EU had been agreed. Sure, there are various proposals for U.K.–EU deals from “the Norway Option” to “Canada++++.” But there doesn’t seem to be a ready-made majority for any one of them. And if one can’t be constructed by a weak PM, then Britain “crashes out” of the EU — as trading under the rules of the World Trade Organization, perhaps the single most successful global body since 1945, is called by, well, the globalists in the Remain camp.
It’s stalemate now, leading automatically to Brexit later — except that though the path to Brexit is clear and unlocked, it’s also menaced by rival gangs of parliamentary Remainers and soft Brexiteers who want to drag the country down one of their own highways that either stop halfway to Brexit or never get beyond the city limits. If they could agree, they might take the country somewhere, even if only to where it is and was before Brexit. But each gang is so devoted to its own trip that it blocks all the others. And since the rules of the road are that they must agree on some positive direction, Brexit may come to them even if they never go to Brexit. It seems unlikely but it can’t be ruled out.
Can Europe save May? That’s not impossible, but it seems very unlikely. Brussels doesn’t want to bend even slightly on the current Withdrawal Agreement. It’s most discussed concession — a “politically binding” declaration softening the legally binding treaty text — would not be nearly enough to satisfy the House of Commons now. There is too much distrust on both sides to make new talks successful. And if May actually does prepare for a “No Deal” outcome, as she now promises, then it would gradually seem to be a less terrifying and more practicable policy as it looms up as a likelihood.
And, finally, the country. This is probably the main problem for May and the Tory Remainers. Though Britain is said to be divided, a recent breakdown of opinion on Brexit constituency by constituency shows that, in almost every district, there is a majority for Leave. It’s a problem for both parties, but it’s especially acute for Tories because the Conservative party outside Parliament is now a thoroughgoing Leaver party. About four-fifths of its activists and 70 percent of its voters are Leavers. Many of the 200 “loyalists” who voted for May this week did so because that was the safe choice at Westminster. But they know that their own activists oppose May, want a stronger Brexit policy, and may demand a real Leaver as their next parliamentary candidate.
A general election may be far off — though it’s a constant threat for a government without a working majority — but a local by-election that produces a shock electoral defeat for a Tory candidate at the hands of a new UKIP would be quite enough to shift many of May’s loyalists and all but the hardest of Hard Remainers back to the Brexit orthodoxy of the Tory manifesto.
Yesterday, the Brexiteers did not succeed in ousting May, electing a new leader, or changing policy. But they made real progress in obstructing May’s crabwise crawl to a soft Brexit and moving their party back towards the policies it allegedly champions. Both sides now threaten parliamentary trench warfare to obstruct May’s Withdrawal Agreement bill and to achieve their various objectives. As Wolcott Gibbs ended his Time parody: Where it will all end, knows God.