Theresa May Survives to Die Another Day

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May (Toby Melville/Reuters)
The prime minister survived a no-confidence vote, but Britain is sliding into a constitutional crisis.

British prime minister Theresa May has survived the no-confidence vote of her party. The votes came in 200 to 117 — slightly worse than expected at the beginning of the day. She has survived by promising her colleagues she will die another day. She has vowed not to lead her party through the next general election, and therefore has the consent to lead her party for the next few months, or days, or hours.

It was a bad week for May. The Brexit deal she has negotiated with the heads of state of the other 27 EU countries was so unpopular with her colleagues that she had to delay Parliament’s vote on it. Her government was found to be in contempt of Parliament and had to be forced to disclose the legal advice it had received about the deal’s wording. She has spent much of the week seeking wiggle room from Brussels, assurances that the “backstop,” which would have the U.K. continue to follow EU rules in the absence of a trade deal, is not a permanent trap.

May appeared at the 1922 Committee ahead of the vote. At that weekly gathering of Tory backbenchers, May essentially promised that in exchange for her party’s consent to lead it right now, she would resign before the Tories face another general election, opening up the possibility she would exit in the spring.

Perhaps no one should be shocked that the 40-year split in the Tory party over Europe has not been healed by the Brexit referendum’s result or the post-Brexit manifesto the party ran on, promising a speedy, orderly, and thorough exit.

What to make of the rebel MPs? Tory MPs do not want to vote for May’s deal because, like all compromises, it disappoints. But the unwillingness to make a more serious bid to unseat her shows that they do not believe there is a better deal to be made or that they will not take the political risks of trying to make one. What they want — and what May gave them — is her assurance that she will pay a political price for her deal and get no credit whatsoever. That is, the Tory party believes more in ending May’s reign than in a better Brexit.

May still has more than one huge boulder to roll up the hill in the coming days and weeks. She reenters talks with European authorities after this vote. Their view, partly confirmed by the no-confidence vote, is that further damage to May’s authority and government can only soften, or perhaps reverse, Brexit. There is clearly no parliamentary majority for a no-deal Brexit. Europe will not reopen the deal, Europe’s leaders say.

The biggest issue driving disappointment with May’s deal at home is the “backstop,” which commits the U.K. to follow EU rules on trade and customs if the two sides cannot hammer together a trade agreement at the end of a transition period. Some opponents feel that it breaks her promise to exit the customs union. May insists that it is merely a guarantee not to build a customs border on the island of Ireland and will be a spur to creating a new trade arrangement that does see the U.K. exit the customs union. May has reportedly promised her party that she will not sign up to an agreement that doesn’t guarantee that any backstop is temporary. Will the EU give her that fig leaf?

May says her deal needs the support of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist party, whose confidence-and-supply agreement holds up her government. So far, the DUP’s position has been that the Brexit backstop effaces the Union of Northern Ireland and Great Britain. May has to convince the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, that this is not true, or never will be true. While the DUP supports Brexit, it supports the Union with the U.K. more.

The result of the no-confidence vote is to create more uncertainty ahead of a vote on May’s withdrawal agreement. The fact is that Brexit was an attempt to reassert the sovereignty of Parliament. But the balance of power in the U.K. Parliament is against Brexit, whether it be a no-deal crash out, or Theresa May’s negotiated version. Britain is sliding into the constitutional crisis that exists between a sovereign Parliament and government-by-referendum. Has the Tory party even noticed?

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