The revolt against British Prime Minister Theresa May has begun.
May will face a vote of no-confidence from Conservatives on Wednesday, the most direct challenge to her leadership yet by members of her own party.
On Monday, May postponed the UK Parliament vote on her unpopular Brexit deal, afraid that it would be roundly rejected. Her decision to delay prompted enough Tory members of Parliament (MPs) to try to push her aside.
The chair of the 1922 Committee, the party’s parliamentary committee for backbench MPs (meaning they’re not part of the government), said Wednesday that he had received at least 48 letters from MPs declaring their dissatisfaction with May, the number needed to trigger a full no-confidence vote among the 315 Conservative MPs.
May has said she will fight this challenge, and has given no indication that she’ll step aside. “I will contest that vote with everything I’ve got,” she said Wednesday, interrupting her meetings with European leaders over her Brexit deal. “A change in leadership in the Conservative Party now will put our country at risk and create uncertainty when we can least afford it.”
May will need the support of a majority of Conservatives (158 MPs) to fend off the challenge. Public declarations from MPs indicate that she has the votes required — around 160 MPs —though the secret ballot vote is scheduled to take place between 6 and 8 pm local time (1 and 3 pm ET). Results will be made public after that.
May will learn her fate then. If she survives, Tories can’t challenge her leadership for a year. If she does not, Conservatives will battle to name a new prime minister and form a government, all while the future of Brexit is at stake.
The Brexit deal May negotiated will die with her prime ministership if she loses the vote on Wednesday, leaving the next prime minister to find a solution to the problem before the March 29, 2019, deadline.
Here’s what you need to know about the no-confidence vote, and what might happen next.
Okay, set the stage: How did we get here?
This threat of this rebellion against May has 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, instead yoking the United Kingdom to the EU potentially indefinitely.
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 might be 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, so MPs would have to declare publicly that they’ve written letters. And pro-Brexit MPs have something to gain by suggesting that the coup against May is more diverse than just the Brexit hardliners.
Either way, Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, said they have received the 48 letters — the 15 percent of Conservatives MPs required to trigger a no-confidence vote.
How does this no-confidence vote work?
A fraction of MPs have submitted letters protesting May, but now the entire Conservative Party must decide whether they want May to remain as prime minister, or try to find someone else to steer the party through these turbulent months before the Brexit deadline.
The secret-ballot vote will occur on Wednesday, and May’s status will be revealed after the votes are counted. The United Kingdom should know by day’s end if it will have a new prime minister, or not.
May needs a majority of Conservatives to back her. If she wins, her leadership can’t be challenged by the party for 12 months, though some UK observers have suggested that if May pulls out a win by a narrow margin, she may feel pressured to resign anyway.
A defeat would mean that May would eventually step aside and the Conservatives must select a new leader from a party that’s bitter divided over Brexit. The process that could take weeks. Conservatives must then form a government (right now, 10 members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party are propping up May’s government) and that leader would step into the role of prime minister.
There’s an important thing to note amid all this drama: This no-confidence vote is different than the other no-confidence vote being talked about by opposition parties, including Labour. A no-confidence vote in Parliament would mean that the majority of total MPs — not just the Conservative Party — would move to oust May, which could potentially trigger new elections.
So will May be prime minister by day’s end?
May is fighting the challenge, saying switching prime ministers in these crucial last months before Brexit would be catastrophic, throwing the process into even more uncertainty.
By making this all about Brexit, May is signaling a compromise of sorts — she’ll steer the country through the EU-UK divorce, but hinted she would step down before the next general election. “She does not believe that this vote, today, is about who leads the Conservative Party into the next election — it is about whether it is sensible to change the leader at this point in the Brexit process,” May’s spokesperson said.
May’s Brexit leadership might not inspire a ton of confidence after this past week, but for Conservatives on both sides of the Brexit divide, the alternatives might be far worse.
The pro-Brexit faction fears that May’s replacement could potentially favor a softer Brexit, or perhaps even trigger a second referendum — another possible “people’s vote” on whether or how the UK should leave the EU — that could reverse Brexit altogether. Meanwhile, pro-Remain MPs fear a hardcore Brexiteer who would blow up any chance for a deal, and push the UK toward a catastrophic no-deal Brexit.
What this means is that the schisms within May’s party could ultimately protect her from a leadership challenge. “The reason she’s managed to last has been that there isn’t a clear alternative [to her],” Simon Usherwood, a professor at the University of Surrey and deputy director of an independent Brexit think tank, told me last month.
“Nobody feels entirely sure that if they got rid of her they would get ... someone who’s more favorable and supportive of what they want,” Usherwood added.
So far, things are actually looking pretty good for Theresa May. At least 160 MPs have publicly come out in favor of her, almost exactly the number she needs to hold on. The ballots are secret, so it’s possible people could change their minds or reverse course, but that’s certainly a positive sign for May.
But if things turn, and May loses, she will need to step aside. Conservatives would pick a new party leader, a process that would begin in the next couple days and could take several weeks. Several candidates would likely to vie for a position of leadership, and a new prime minister would take power sometime in the next year.
Some of the notable names include Boris Johnson, the former London mayor and an eager Brexiteer; Dominic Raab, the former Brexit negotiator that quit May’s cabinet over her proposal; Amber Rudd, an ally of May’s and a proponent of a “soft Brexit”; and Sajid Javid, the current Home secretary who supported remaining part of the EU in the 2016 referendum, but has since switched sides.
Whatever happens on Wednesday — whether May defeats the challenge, or she’s pushed aside in favor of a yet-to-be-decided leader — Brexit remains stubbornly unresolved. A fight over Conservative leadership will likely stall progress on a Brexit solution for weeks. And there are just 107 days left until the deadline.