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Theresa May on the Brink

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons, London, Britain, December 12, 2018. (Parliament TV via Reuters)

Only hours after you read this, the Tories will have decided whether or not to ditch Theresa May as Tory leader and thus as prime minister. Outside the fervid realm of politics, she would now be quietly, if sympathetically, steered towards the exit door. Only days ago, May had to withdraw a vote on her Brexit Withdrawal Agreement from Parliament because it was universally recognized that she would lose it. Bear in mind that this vote was to confirm her signal achievement, which she has spent the last two years negotiating and promoting, undistracted by any significant success or even aspiration on other issues. Moreover, she is opposed on it by four-fifths of Tory supporters in the country on it. Her attempt to salvage the Withdrawal Agreement internationally by a tour of European capitals since Monday has been a complete failure. And Tories in Parliament are in disarray and semi-rebellion. It should be curtains for May.

When Mark Wallace of the Conservative Home website examined the cool strategic arguments for keeping May advanced by her team and the whips, he found persuasively that they came up short. The most convincing argument he eviscerated as follows:

“A leadership election would not change . . . the parliamentary arithmetic.” This is obviously true, in its most basic sense. But it is not a reason to keep the Prime Minister in office. She has lost, fatally, under that parliamentary arithmetic — that is why she was not even able to put her proposals to a vote in the House of Commons yesterday. There is no sign of her being able to remedy that failure, or to present a convincing case of how she might try to do so. Yes, a different Prime Minister would face the same arithmetic, but they would at least have the opportunity to seek to manage it differently, from a fresh start.

It’s what the CIA would call a slam dunk.

Yet as Tory MPs go into the committee room to cast their votes tonight, she is a firm favorite to survive. That may surprise you, but it’s happened before. When John Major called a confidence vote on himself in order to quell widespread discontent on the Tory benches, commentators warned that he was a deadweight on Tory hopes of reelection and that MPs who backed him would be turkeys voting for Christmas. But the turkeys voted for Christmas nonetheless, and Christmas promptly arrived in the form of Tony Blair’s 1997 Labour landslide, which cut the number of Tory turkeys in Parliament down to a low of 197. That experience does not seem to be deterring May’s supporters, however.

Now, we don’t know yet if May will survive — I’ll have some comments on the result when we know it. One indication that the vote may be closer than the journos have predicted is that May told a last-minute meeting of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers that she would not lead the party into the next election. Ministers are reported by an entirely sober Tim Shipman of the Sunday Times to be “crying” in response. But May has always refused to make this concession before, and her doing so now is a glaring advertisement of weakness.

It makes her a lame-duck PM, in addition to all her other drawbacks, and some hesitating MPs must be worried about the consequences of her diminishing clout. She also pledged that any Brexit package would have to have the endorsement of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist party — which seems to negate her earlier claims to be determined to push her Withdrawal Agreement though the House of Commons. Another sign of weakness — picked up by the alert parliamentary sketch writer of the Daily Mail, Quentin Letts — is that a Tory MP suspended by the Whips because of sexual-harassment charges (of an unusually foolish kind) has been re-admitted into the fold so that he can vote in the leadership stakes. Suppose May wins by one vote! What larks!

All in all, the vote of confidence seems to be proceeding in an overheated atmosphere that combines Yes Minister and Mean Girls. Some MPs must be emerging from the Conservative backbench 1922 committee with the feeling that this sort of thing bodes ill for the future. But enough? We’ll know soon.

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