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British Prime Minister Theresa May survives no-confidence vote

But the future of Brexit is still unclear.

Theresa May Faces A Confidence Vote In Her Leadership Over Brexit
Prime Minister Theresa May
Leon Neal/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

British Prime Minister May has survived a no-confidence vote from her Conservative Party, defeating a serious challenge to her leadership as she tries to steer the United Kingdom through Brexit chaos.

May won the vote 200 to 117, which spares the Tories from a bitter leadership contest that could have derailed focus from Brexit for weeks. May can’t face another Conservative no-confidence vote for a year, and she will keep her job for now.

But the margin was close enough to leave May weakened and vulnerable, and it was a sign that it’s not just hardline Brexiteers in her party who are losing faith in her.

May acknowledged this in a brief address after the Wednesday vote. “Whilst I’m grateful for that support, a significant number of colleagues did cast a vote against me and I have listened to what they said,” she said, adding that her main focus will continue to be ushering the UK through Brexit.

And this no-confidence vote is really a sideshow to the main event: the debate over May’s Brexit deal. May postponed a vote on her proposal — which outlines the terms of the EU’s divorce from the United Kingdom — this week, after she faced the prospect of a humiliating defeat.

Everyone hates the Brexit deal on offer, though the parliamentary factions have different reasons: Hardline Brexiteers believe it will yoke the UK to the EU indefinitely, pro-Remain MPs are still holding out hope that Brexit will never happen, and everyone else is agitating for a better deal, though the EU has insisted that won’t happen.

May’s delay on the Brexit deal vote created an opening for a Conservative rebellion that had been brewing for some weeks, instigated by hardline Brexiteers who loathe May’s deal and are agitating for a more decisive split from the EU.

Their gambit failed, though it’s clear the dissatisfaction with May extends far beyond the pro-Brexit wing of her party.

But even though Conservatives are frustrated with May’s Brexit strategy, May’s win on Wednesday shows that the Tories also don’t really have a better option. The Conservatives are far too divided and Brexit is too messy a task.

Anand Menon, the director of an independent Brexit research institute called UK in a Changing Europe and a professor at King’s College in London, said one of the reasons May is still in her position is that “a lot of people, including several of the leadership candidates, are thinking, ‘Well, let’s let her do Brexit. Who wants to be prime minister now?’”

The no-confidence vote reflected a grim reality: May’s deal may be unpopular, but besides a majority agreeing that a no-deal Brexit would be very bad, Parliament remains badly split on what to do next.

The prime minister will head back to Brussels this week to try to convince EU leaders to try to offer some assurances to help sway Parliament on her proposal. There’s no guarantee she’ll get them. But for now, May — and her deal — survive.

How did we get here?

This threat of this rebellion against May had been brewing for weeks. After May presented her Brexit deal in November, a flurry of Tory MPs said they submitted letters of no confidence to the 1922 committee.

Hardline Brexiteers led the early uprising, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, a vocal anti-EU MP. He was joined by a growing number of pro-Brexit Tories who said May had broken her promises on Brexit with her deal. These Tories want a decisive split with the European Union, and they saw May’s Brexit deal as failing to deliver a tidy and wholehearted divorce from the bloc.

But the push against May fizzled out, as these hardliners overestimated their initial support and couldn’t reach the 48-letter threshold.

That changed this week, after May abruptly pulled her deeply unpopular Brexit deal from a scheduled vote on Tuesday, since her proposal, which outlined the terms of the EU-UK divorce, would have been badly defeated.

May then jetted off to meet with European Union leaders to try to win some concessions, even as EU leaders insisted they would not reopen negotiations, and any changes to the deal would be largely cosmetic.

May’s decision to delay the vote on the deal — possibly as late as January 21 of next year — infuriated members of Parliament within her party and outside of it. And it appears to have finally swung enough MPs against her to submit letters of no confidence.

Pro-Brexit Tories are still out front in this push against May, but the coalition against her may have been a little more diverse this time, with some pro-Remain Conservatives possibly submitting letters against her, reports the Financial Times.

It’s hard to know for sure, as the letters are kept secret, as was the full vote on Wednesday. What we do know is that May had the public support of around 160 to 170 MPs before heading into the vote, and ended up winning 200 to 117, which suggests that this wasn’t a purely pro-Brexit rebellion against her.

What happens now?

May addressed reporters outside 10 Downing Street after the vote. She said she was “pleased” with the backing of her colleagues but noted that a “significant number” voted against her, and she would listen to their concerns.

But she quickly moved on to the real issue at hand: Brexit. “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,” May said. She added that she was headed to Brussels to meet with the European Council over concerns Parliament had about her deal.

Barring any more twists in the saga (which probably just jinxed it), May will remain in power and can’t face another leadership challenge from her own party for another 12 months. She did say ahead of the vote that she would not seek to be a candidate for prime minister in the 2022 election, seemingly as a concession to bolster support ahead of the vote.

But as Menon, the Brexit expert, told me, few saw May as anything more than a temporary prime minister — here to deal with Brexit, then gone — anyway.

Abraham Newman, a professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, echoed that, saying the no-confidence vote was more theatrics than anything else, and a moment for the hardcore Brexiteers to make a public show of opposing May and her deal.

“The idea that they would get rid of her right now — nobody wants that stinky mess,” Newman said of Brexit. “If she’s gone, somebody has to pick that up. Who wants to pick it up? Nobody.”

“May,” he added, “is in most danger the minute Brexit gets done.”

That hasn’t stopped her detractors, specifically hardline Tory MPs, as trying to frame her margin of victory as an actual defeat. Rees-Mogg — the MP who began the campaign to unseat May — has demanded she still resign anyway.

But other Conservative MPs are echoing May, saying the vote is over and now it’s time to get back to the hard work of figuring out Brexit. The strongest support is coming, perhaps not surprisingly, from ministers in her cabinet.

As for May, she’s ultimately back to where she started this week: with a deeply unpopular Brexit deal on hand. She will meet with the European Council in Brussels on Thursday and Friday to push for “assurances” on her deal, specifically over the “Irish backstop,” a guarantee in the withdrawal deal that the border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which is part of the EU) will remain open, even if the UK and EU can’t reach an agreement on their future relationship.

May’s deal would preserve this open border through a complicated arrangement that would involve the UK remaining as part of the EU customs union. The UK can’t unilaterally pull out of this setup, and opponents see this as potentially hitching the UK to the EU without an end date.

She began her pitch to European leaders on the backstop ahead of the no-confidence vote on Wednesday. But the big question will be how the EU will now respond after the day’s political chaos.

The EU has avoided getting involved in British domestic politics, but it’s also remained firm on the options for the UK: It’s this Brexit deal, no deal, or no Brexit at all.

Menon told me the EU could actually help May here, by being even more explicit on these three options — and by affirming that it doesn’t actually matter who the UK prime minister is between now and March 29, 2019 (the Brexit deadline). In other words, this is the deal you’re getting, period.

But even if that happens, it won’t guarantee May will win the backing to get her deal passed when she puts it up again for a vote, likely in January. There is a segment of Parliament that will never vote for the deal. They are the hardcore Brexiteers who want a clean break with the EU, and they’ll reject May’s proposal, even if it means a no-deal Brexit. There are members of Parliament who want to find a way to stop Brexit altogether, and approving the deal would mean giving up that dream.

But the remaining opposition comes from those who still seek a better deal, even though the EU has said it doesn’t exist. That reality might begin to sink in for restless MPs in January — which is much closer to March 29, 2019.

“One of the options gets cast in starker relief,” Menon said of a January vote. “That is, you really are starting to stare a no deal right in the face.”