Theresa May has clung on to power, but the confidence vote has left her weakened and desperately needing a game-changing solution to solve the political deadlock over Brexit, Conservatives on both sides of the bitterly divided party said on Wednesday night.
May hung on to the party leadership after 200 Conservative MPs supported her in a secret ballot, with 117 against. But within moments of the result being announced at 9pm, MPs were already looking ahead to the looming showdown in the House of Commons over her Brexit deal. And even those who voted for her to stay as leader said they now saw no way she could get it through.
“Safe for now, but wounded” was the assessment of one well-placed government source to BuzzFeed News.
“Theresa May lives but her Brexit deal is dead,” said one Remain-supporting former minister who voted for the prime minister in the secret ballot.
Although May survived, the number of her own MPs who voted to remove her made it clear that her Brexit agreement is on course for a crushing defeat, the MP said.
Before today, 115 Tory MPs had publicly said they oppose the deal, but it was unclear whether all of them would actually vote against it when it was put before the house. The scale of the opposition to the prime minister in Wednesday’s leadership ballot “crystallises” the numbers against her, the MP said.
“If 117 MPs have no confidence in May, that means the number willing to vote against her deal is significantly higher,” a Tory MP said. “There is no way the deal gets through the Commons.”
The ballot was in one sense a defeat for the European Research Group, the alliance of hardline Eurosceptics who have lobbied for a hard Brexit and pushed most aggressively for May to be removed as leader. However, even MPs on the Remain side of the divide said it would be a mistake to view the result merely as a humiliation for the Brexiteers and that Downing Street should not be triumphant about the result.
While the result highlights the Brexiteers’ weaknesses, it also emphasises that Number 10 are desperately short of options. “It’s a game-changing moment in which Theresa May has to rip up whatever strategy she had and start again in a way that can get parliament behind her,” the former minister said.
Trouble is, there are few options available to her.
At the same time, they said, May’s own authority will be further undermined because, in an attempt to placate her critics, she indicated that she would not lead the party into the next election. That will give those with ambitions to take over as leader — and there are many among the party’s senior ranks with such ambitions — licence to openly campaign. Manoeuvres that have until now taken place behind closed doors will now be much more blatant.
Despite failing to remove the PM, Brexiteers were bullish and insisted that the larger-than-expected revolt meant May had failed to put down the rebellion.
Many expectations in Westminster before the vote estimated the size of the revolt at around 80. Instead, over a third of the Tory parliamentary party voted to oust May, including over half of backbenchers, and May had to promise not to stand again to prevent further opposition to her leadership.
Standing outside Number 10 after the vote, May said she would secure “legal and political assurances” from Brussels on the backstop that would “assuage” the concerns of those who voted against her.
But the EU’s 27 leaders are expected to reaffirm at a European Council summit on Thursday and Friday that the withdrawal agreement “is not open for renegotiation”, according to draft conclusions seen by BuzzFeed News.
The draft, which has yet to be definitively endorsed by EU leaders, says Brussels would stress that it is its “firm determination” to prevent the backstop from being triggered, and that the EU would use its “best endeavours to negotiate and conclude expeditiously a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop, so that it would only be in place for a short period and only as long as strictly necessary”.
The text is also set to underline that if the backstop were ever used, it would apply only temporarily “unless and until” it is superseded by a subsequent agreement.
This is unlikely to win over Brexiteer rebels. The Democratic Unionist Party’s deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, said after the vote that “the message from tonight is very clear. The backstop must go”.
A former cabinet minister said: “This result has only made the Brexiteers grow in confidence because now they know she has no chance of passing her deal without proper legal changes made to the backstop. They will not be duped.”
The 27 leaders are also expected to state that the backstop does not represent a desirable outcome, and is only intended as “an insurance policy to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland”.
The fifth and final paragraph of the draft says that the EU is ready to examine whether any further assurance can be provided. However, any such assurance “will not change or contradict the Withdrawal agreement”, the current draft reads.
BuzzFeed News understands that this section will probably not be adopted in its current form at the summit as the 27 leaders will first want to hear from the UK about what kind of assurances it is seeking — and it may well be that negotiations will need to continue beyond this week’s meeting and into the new year.
Alex Spence is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Wickham at email@example.com.
Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alberto Nardelli at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.