It sure hasn’t taken long for Theresa May to cement her reputation as a “bloody difficult woman.”
First there was her brutal cabinet reshuffle, clearing the government of David Cameron’s posh Oxford set, sacking George Osborne and Michael Gove, once the bright lights of the Conservative’s future. Then, during a debate over reauthorizing Britain’s “Trident” nuclear weapons program in the House of Commons yesterday, May was quick to confirm that yes, she would authorize a nuclear strike to kill 100,000 civilians if worst came to worse.
May may receive a fair amount of criticism for her ready willingness to use nuclear weapons if it became necessary to do so — after all, nobody wants to envision their country committing another Hiroshima, killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians to defeat a foreign power. Sadly, though, May is correct. There’s not much point in having a nuclear deterrent if you’re not going to use it — the deterrent isn’t going to do much deterring if it’s destined to remain permanently untouched in a Scottish firth.
Perhaps in spite of May’s remark, reauthorization of Trident passed with a resounding majority of 472 in favor to 117 opposed. For Jeremy Corbyn, the embattled leader of the Labour party, the result is especially embarrassing. Corbyn opposed reauthorizing Trident; he has been steadfastly against nuclear weapons for his entire political career, as befits a radical of his type. But he allowed his MPs a free vote on the issue — much like he did in December, on the motion to authorize bombing the Islamic State in Syria. Corbyn lost that vote by a wide margin; yesterday, too, he lost, and in spectacular fashion, as Labour MPs voted 140-47 to reauthorize the program, in a mass rebellion against their leader.
This is not a wholly surprising result. Corbyn’s position on Trident is shared neither by many members of his party nor of the electorate in general. That he permitted a free vote in the first place suggests that he knew his whips would be unable to keep Labour MPs in line. Still, the sheer landslide against Corbyn within his own party is remarkable, and a resounding rejection of his authority as a leader of a parliamentary party.
The situation only gets worse for Labour, though. Corbyn is currently standing against two challengers, Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, in a contest for the leadership of the Labour party. Despite his lack of support among parliamentarians, Corbyn is massively popular among party members — he defeats Eagle and Smith individually by enormous margins. It looks very likely, then, that he will remain at the head of the Labour party once the leadership contest is finished, that the will of the Labour members is far different from the preferences of Labour MPs.
The Trident vote demonstrates the absurdity of this situation. On the most pressing issues, Corbyn can’t command anything resembling a majority of his party’s MPs. But, thanks to Labour’s method of deciding leadership contests, it looks all but assured that he cannot be ousted from the leadership. Corbyn will therefore command a parliamentary party whose MPs do not support him. We’re in uncharted territory here; how much longer it can last, nobody really knows. But give it a few more votes like this one and Corbyn’s position may well end up completely untenable.