British PM Theresa May still has her job, but her Brexit deal is in trouble

3:02 pm on 13 December 2018

By David Townsend*

Opinion - The result of the challenge this morning to Mrs May's leadership within the Tory Party was hardly an overwhelming endorsement of her leadership. 200 to 117. In basketball a good win. In Parliament not really.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street in central London after winning a confidence vote on December 12, 2018. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP)

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street in central London after winning a confidence vote. Photo: AFP

Mrs Thatcher was forced out nearly 30 years ago in a previous Tory "spill" on not dissimilar figures. Mrs May is apparently made of sterner stuff. Or so she pretends. She announced she would see Brexit through. Whatever and however.

This is a Prime Minister who has made an even bigger Brexit pig's ear of what was always going to be a pig's ear.

Her regular opponents, those whom her own Chancellor Philip Hammond described as "extremists" (can this really be the Tory Party?) probably numbered only the required 48 who have wanted a leadership challenge for months.

All of them are staunch opponents of any deal involving continued British membership of the EU in any real form. So all deeply opposed to Mrs May's inevitable compromise "deal" that Northern Ireland (or the UK as a whole) remains in the EU Customs Union.

What boosted their numbers to 117 was the crass and "discourteous" (the Commons Speaker's word) way Mrs May abruptly cancelled the vote on the "deal" by Parliament this week. She suddenly realised she would lose. Tory MPs do not like to be treated as cannon fodder, despite the contrary evidence.

To reduce her internal Party critics' numbers and to show that she had been "listening"- her word - she announced today she would not lead the Tory Party at the next election in 2022. Caveat emptor. This may be a bit of smoke and mirrors. The last election under the five-year Parliamentary rule was in 2015. There would have been an election in 2020.

But Mrs May, citing the urgency of an endorsement for her Brexit negotiations called an election in 2017. She did not win and lost her majority. To reinstate it, she signed up with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) a party that still worships at the Protestant shrine of William III, is deeply hostile to the Republic of Ireland, and by extension the EU.

The DUP is unlikely ever to sign up to Mrs May's "deal". The DUP wants no part of the EU. Ironically the majority of voters in Northern Ireland voted in the Referendum to Remain in the EU. Another blunder on the road to nowhere.

So far as one can tell, bar a few new airy words, Mrs May's deal remains as it was before her frantic whistle stop tour of European capitals this week, to get something extra to sell the "deal". The problem remains. Mrs May still has to present the same Brexit deal at some point to the same Parliament.

She now knows that 117 of her own Party may be inclined to vote it down. Her majority over the Opposition, which is opposed to her deal, is 12. Are her powers of persuasion in the next few weeks enough to get most of them back on side? Can she frighten enough of them with the prospects of no deal and a crash out with really disastrous consequences?

Some months ago she did appoint a "Minister of Food". A job not seen in Britain since the Second World War.

The Opposition Labour Party meanwhile has its own problems. Should it press for a General Election following a possible motion of no confidence in Mrs May's government? On what basis would the election be fought? Brexit is the overriding issue and Labour is compromised by Jeremy Corbyn, a Leader who has never been an enthusiast for the EU in any of its forms.

British Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn delivers a speech at the XI Party of European Socialists Congress under the theme "Fair, Free, Sustainable - The Progressive Europe We Want", at ISCTE - University Institute of Lisbon in Lisbon on December 7, 2018. (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP)

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has never been an enthusiast for the EU in any of its forms. Photo: AFP

Some Labour MPs favour a second referendum - on what exactly? Many Labour MPs fear any suggestion of no Brexit will lose them their seats. Probably exaggerated because Brexit-lag is widespread outside Parliament. The key question is why would anyone believe Jeremy Corbyn as PM could get a better deal?

For Europe there is a degree of comfort that Mrs May is still in situ. Some of her possible replacements - Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab - to judge by their recent statements eg (the EU is comparably "Soviet" or "Nazi" and they "can whistle for their money") are not taken seriously at all.

But it still does not alter the fact that her deal is presently not even on life support. What sort of letter will she write to Santa this Christmas?

* David Townsend is an ex-UK Parliamentary Labour candidate, a former Labour ministerial speech writer and special adviser and contributor to The Guardian, The Independent and The Times.

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