Britain’s Theresa May wins confidence vote, will remain prime minister
LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May survived a humiliating challenge to her leadership on Wednesday night, beating back a no-confidence vote triggered by rebels in her Conservative Party who oppose her compromise deal on how to leave the European Union.
May won the party-only vote by 200 to 117 — comfortably surpassing the threshold of the simple majority of 158 votes she needed to hold on to power. But it was hardly a victory.
The challenge by her own party leaves May a wounded leader. The British prime minister is now immune from a leadership challenge by her party for a year, but she faces a parliament hostile to her Brexit deal and European leaders who wonder how long she she will remain in office.
May’s survival offered measured relief in the rest of the European Union, where leaders have little option other than to hope May can hold on and deliver the Brexit deal by March 29. Many countries have sped up emergency preparation in recent weeks, fearing that Britain’s political paralysis will lead to a chaotic exit from the European Union.
“Glad about the outcome of tonight’s vote,” the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz wrote on Twitter. “Our shared goal is to avoid a no-deal scenario.”
May had warned rebellious lawmakers that ousting her would not make getting a better Brexit deal any easier and would instead bring delay and confusion.
“I will contest that vote with everything I’ve got,” said May, speaking outside her Downing Street residence, before the vote. “I stand ready to finish the job.”
The no-confidence vote involved only Conservative Party lawmakers and not the entire Parliament.
May and her Brexit plan have been pummeled for weeks by members of Parliament, both from her own party and the opposition. But faced with the prospect of losing their leader in a no-confidence vote, a long string of top Tories publicly declared their support for her – suggesting that the prime minister could survive the day.
In an 11th-hour meeting with her backbench, May told Tory members that she would not stand for election before the public again.
George Freeman, a Conservative member of Parliament, revealed a “powerful and moving moment” as May told her fellow Tories that she has “listened, heard and respects the will of the party” and that once she delivers Brexit “she will step aside for the election of a new leader to lead the reunification and renewal we need.” Delivering Brexit, however, could take months or, more likely, years.
The failed challenge to May’s leadership does not settle the ongoing chaos over Britain’s future relationship with Europe.
The result offered measured relief in the rest of the European Union, where leaders have little option other than to hope May can hold on and deliver the Brexit deal by March 29. Many countries have sped up emergency preparation in recent weeks, fearing that Britain’s political paralysis will lead to a chaotic exit from the European Union.
“Glad about the outcome of tonight’s vote in the #UK,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz wrote on Twitter. “Looking forward to seeing theresa—may tomorrow at the #EUCO in #Brussels. Our shared goal is to avoid a no-deal scenario.”
May announced Monday that she was delaying a parliamentary vote on her deal, after she concluded that the accord faced a humiliating defeat in the House of Commons. May spent Tuesday meeting with Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU leaders, trying to concoct new concessions that might appease British lawmakers who oppose her Brexit withdrawal agreement.
For the Tories to challenge May, ostensibly their party leader, they needed to send at least 48 letters — equaling 15 percent of the 315 Conservative lawmakers — to Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee in Parliament.
Brady told the BBC that he informed the prime minister on Tuesday night that the threshold of 48 letters had been reached. May was “businesslike and keen to proceed as quickly as possible,” he said.
Before she survived the confidence vote, May had advised her fellow Tories to look at the calendar. “The new leader wouldn’t have time to renegotiate a withdrawal agreement and get the legislation through Parliament by the 29th of March,” the date when Britain is set to leave the European Union, she said.
A new leader would have to seek delay, May said. “So one of their first acts would have to be extending or rescinding Article 50, delaying or even stopping Brexit when people want us to get on with it,” she said, referring to the provision of the EU treaty that allows members to withdraw from the bloc.
The leader of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, expressed frustration with the political squabbling. She tweeted: “Today is a stark reminder that the UK is facing chaos and crisis entirely because of a vicious civil war within the Tory party. What a self-centered bunch they are. They all need to go, not just the PM.”
Conservative lawmaker Geoffrey Cox tweeted that he would be backing the prime minister, adding: “This is no time for the self indulgent spasm of a leadership election.”
Supporters included Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Home Secretary Sajid Javid.
Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the exchequer, called the Tory rebels who pressed for a no-confidence vote “extremists” and predicted that they would fail. He tweeted: “The Prime Minister has worked hard in the National interest since the day she took office and will have my full support in the vote tonight. Her deal means we leave the EU on time, whilst protecting our jobs and our businesses.”
Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said May’s surival will not solve the Conservative Party’s Brexit problems. “Is the problem actually the prime minister? The problem is what it has always been. Any deal that could pass muster with the EU won’t pass muster with Tory Euroskeptics.”
There was no shortage of fellow Tories who suggested they might make fine replacements. Among the possible contenders are former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab and former foreign secretary Boris Johnson. Both men resigned their posts, saying they could not support May’s Brexit deal because it kept Britain too closely aligned with Europe.
“Vassalage,” Johnson called it.
Commentators had been quick to draw comparisons to Margaret Thatcher, the original Iron Lady and Britain’s only other female prime minister, who won a vote of confidence on the first ballot but resigned anyway in 1990. The party’s rules were very different then. Now, a leader cannot be challenged by a rival — a contest is triggered by the 48 letters – and needs to win by only a single vote.
In Brussels, where preparations are underway for a summit of European leaders Thursday and Friday for which Brexit is only one issue among many, diplomats were measured in their reaction to the British drama. Many have long braced for a challenge to May’s leadership, and although the British instability added to uncertainty surrounding the Brexit deal, several diplomats said there was little they could do to sway events in London.
If anything, the leadership challenge hardened resolve among the remaining EU nations to insist on an ironclad backup plan to preserve a border-free frontier between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Diplomats increasingly doubt they can rely on assurances from any British leader, because that leader could quickly be replaced.
European leaders are stepping up their planning for the chaos that would be created by Britain’s crashing out of the EU with no deal in place at all. That could also lead to the imposition of border controls at the Irish border, meaning that both sides have motivations to solve the issue.
“We do not have any intention of further changing the withdrawal agreement,” Merkel told the German parliament on Wednesday ahead of the summit. “That is the common position of the 27 member states.”