The system for Tories who want rid of their leader is primarily in the hands of MPs. If one-sixth of the Conservative backbenchers have written a letter of no-confidence in their leader to the chair of the 1922 Committee, a vote of no-confidence is called: if the leader wins that vote, they can’t be challenged again for another year: if they lose that vote, there is a leadership election in which the current leader cannot stand, voted on by Tory MPs only until only two candidates are left standing: the Tory membership then gets to vote on the last two candidates.
Tonight, 315 Tory MPs will get to have a second vote to see if they’ve changed their minds since 2016. (Most of them have been arguing that we shouldn’t get to have a second vote to see if we have.)
Rumour has it that Graham Brady had some months ago already totalled 48 letters in his cupboard. He went to the Tory MPs who had given him their letters of no confidence in Theresa May back in 2016, and asked them if they wanted to withdraw those letters or if they really wanted to trigger a leadership election now: and, rumour says, they decided they didn’t and withdrew their letters. Whether true or not, that story illuminates the kind of feeling in the Conservative Party – disliking and on the whole distrusting May, but not willing to change leaders in the middle of shambling towards Brexit.
Bim Afolami, the Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, told the New Statesman only yesterday: “Anyone who thinks what the country needs now is a Conservative Party leadership election needs professional help. We are at risk of looking like we are concerned about our own political concerns, not the concerns of the country, in the midst of this Brexit crisis”.
As of last week, the main faction in the Tory MPs who wanted Theresa May out before Brexit, was the so-called European Research Group, the ERG, who saw what happened to hedge funds that bet on shorting the pound after the UK voted for Brexit,and want a no-deal Brexit for the millions it will make them when the pound falls and the UK economy is destroyed.
On Tuesday 11th December – only yesterday – there was supposed to be a final debate and vote on the exit deal the EU have negotiated for Theresa May. On Monday 10th December, after sending out her Cabinet Ministers all weekend and into Monday morning to assure everyone the Tuesday night vote would go ahead even though May’s deal was sure to be voted down – Theresa May held a phone conference Cabinet meeting at 11:30am and announced in the Commons at 3:30pm that Tuesday night’s debate and vote on her Brexit deal was indefinitely postponed.
Anyone who was watching the two and a half hours of questioning Theresa May that followed knew the Conservative Party MPs were as unhappy with this decision as MPs of Labour and other parties.
John Bercow, Speaker of the House, said understatedly that the government’s decision to cancel a scheduled debate by fiat was discourteous.
Theresa May would have lost the vote on her deal on Tuesday night. She claimed on Monday afternoon that she had “listened to MPs”, realised they were unhappy, and meant to go back to Brussels and see if changes could be negotiated to her deal that would mean it could pass the House of Commons.
The EU had already made clear they considered this deal to be finalised: the UK has the choice of accepting it or not, but there will be no further negotiations.
But during Monday afternoon’s questioning of Theresa May by MPs, as May repeated that she wasn’t cancelling the debate forever, just planning to go back to Brussels to renegotiate some changes to make MPs happier with the deal, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, tweeted:
I have decided to call #EUCO on #Brexit (Art. 50) on Thursday. We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification. As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a no-deal scenario.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) December 10, 2018
Several MPs then referred Theresa May to this announcement, but she continued to repeat that she would go back to Brussels to renegotiate changes.
Of course, by the time the European Council meets, Theresa May might not be Prime Minister.
Theresa May missed the emergency debate called by Jeremy Corbyn for Tuesday morning to discuss May’s cancellation of Tuesday night’s debate. During that debate, it became horribly clear that many Tory MPs believe Theresa May’s face-saving claim that changes can be made to the deal. They want those changes.
An unnamed Tory MP told BBC Newsnight on Tuesday that he thought the Irish should “know their place” – the backstop in May’s deal is designed to preserve the Good Friday Agreement and the transparent border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the EU forever – which means a hard border is required between Northern Ireland and rUK.
“We simply cannot allow the Irish to treat us like this. This simply cannot stand. The Irish really should know their place.”
This backstop was instituted because the Republic of Ireland, negotiating with the UK as part of the European Union, has the upper hand. For the first time in the UK’s relationship with Ireland, the UK must accept the deal as Ireland wants it, not as the UK wants it, and this unnamed Tory minister is undoubtedly not the only Conservative MP who finds that situation incomprehensively unacceptable.
If Theresa May wins tonight’s vote of confidence – if 158 Tory MPs decide they’d rather keep going with her even though they can’t trust her not to say one thing and do another – then things stagger on as they were. Theresa May remains PM and leader of the Tory party til 13th December 2019. May’s deal eventually gets put to the House of Commons sometime in January 2019 and loses. There is no time left for a second referendum: either MPs revoke Article 50 and Brexit is cancelled, or the UK falls out of the EU in no-deal Brexit and catastrophe ensues. May has said all along that she’d never revoke Article 50, but with Theresa May’s record, that means exactly nothing.
An editorial in Bloomberg yesterday called for May to step aside if she couldn’t bring herself to have a second referendum on Brexit:
Granted, May has repeatedly and unambiguously rejected the idea of a second referendum. Nonetheless, yesterday she ought to have recanted, and if she couldn’t bring herself to do that, she ought to have stepped aside. As things stand, she’s still prime minister, but no longer leading the country.
As the costs and risks of Brexit have become clearer, support for the project has fallen. In a recent YouGov poll, only 38 percent of voters said they still think leaving was a good idea, an all-time low. Offered the choice of May’s deal or remaining in the EU, 46 percent would stay while 35 percent would take the deal. Imposing the deal under these circumstances would not, as May claims, honor the expressed will of Britain’s voters. It would do the opposite.
If Theresa May loses the vote of no confidence, and there is another Tory leadership election, there is almost no chance that whoever ends up leader of the Conservative Party will be someone who will want a second referendum or to revoke Article 50 without a referendum.
The three factions in the Tory party are, more or less: the Remainers, the die-hard Brexiters, and the largest single group, the lukewarm who don’t really care about staying in the EU or leaving it and would probably accept May’s deal as a way of getting Brexit over with before the next general election.
What matters in the vote of confidence tonight, and the leadership election to come if May loses, is how the lukewarm will vote. They aren’t happy with May, who promised them no general election – and then called one in 2017 – but they also aren’t happy with May for courting the die-hard Brexiters in her own party to the rejection of everyone else. and for her refusing to try to reach out to the Labour MPs in strongly-Leave constituencies who would probably have voted for a Brexit deal they felt they had been consulted on and given a chance to shape it. They aren’t happy with any of the die-hard Brexiters who might stand to replace May – Boris Johnson, David Davis, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
But if the lukewarm Tory MP vote coalesces around a Remainer candidate, then the chances are, the last two candidates standing are a Remainer – and a die-hard Brexiter (or Boris Johnson faking being a die-hard Brexiter so he can be PM). And when those two candidates are voted on by the Conservative Party membership – elderly, white, well-off, comfortable and secure and sure that Brexit won’t affect that – the membership will vote for the die-hard Brexiter.
And that’s the new leader of the party; someone who wants the UK to crash out of the EU in no-deal Brexit, who is even capable of refusing the money owed by the UK for its share in the EU budget up to December 2020.
There is no guarantee that the new leader of the Conservative Party becomes Prime Minister. As Colin Talbot outlines here, the Prime Minister is the leader of the party who can command the confidence of the Commons – and the Conservative Party hasn’t had a majority in the House of Commons since June 2017. If the DUP stick to their deal, the Tories have 225 votes, enough – just – to win a vote of no-confidence, but if the leader elected is a Remainer, the DUP may decide the deal is over, and yes, that makes it possible there could be a general election in February 2019.
While it’s unlikely EU-27 would agree to extend Article 50 for a change of party leadership, if the UK held a general election so close to the Brexit deadline with a promise of a referendum on EU membership in one or other of the major parties’ manifesto, then I think they would.
But ironically, in this scenario, it could be the Tories promising that they’ll take the decision of Brexit back to the people if they lose – and Labour promising to negotiate a better deal and get the UK out of the EU if they win.
So I can’t honestly tell you if I want Theresa May to lose the vote of confidence in her leadership tonight. I think she will win it by a narrow margin and stagger on, continuing to promise everything and deliver nothing.
No deal Brexit is still a high-risk scenario, whatever the results of tonight’s vote.