Brexit: Chance of confidence vote in May's leadership has increased
Analysis: Prime minister’s enemies on the Conservative backbenches are ready to strike again
Theresa May came to the despatch box in the House of Commons on Monday in the most humiliating circumstances after she was forced into cancelling Tuesday’s vote on her Brexit deal. If she had pressed ahead with the vote she faced likely defeat by more than 100 votes, with some MPs putting the figure closer to 200.
Such a defeat could not only have doomed her deal and threatened her premiership but might have toppled the government itself as the Conservative party’s Brexit factions went to war.
By postponing the vote May has bought herself more time to win support among MPs for her Brexit deal, unless she is subjected to a confidence vote in the next few days and loses it.
The prime minister made a strong case for her deal as a necessary compromise, and reminded MPs that the backstop was a product of the reality of Brexit’s impact on Northern Ireland and the Border. And she challenged her critics to make the case for alternative policies on Brexit, and to acknowledge their implications.
May does not expect a breakthrough in Brussels this week as she seeks reassurances on the backstop that are sufficiently substantial to persuade dozens of Conservative MPs to change their minds about her Brexit deal.
The EU could offer an assurance that the backstop will be temporary, perhaps in a declaration or an exchange of letters or even in the form of a statement from the European Commission’s legal service that Article 50 can only sustain a temporary arrangement.
Such moves fall well short of what the Brexiteers are demanding, which is a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop. May has not ruled out attempting to reopen the text of the withdrawal agreement, but warned that such a move could bring other issues back to the table, such as a Northern Ireland-only backstop.
If there is no breakthrough this week the European Council will have to meet in January to sign off to any concession to May. Bringing the deal back to Westminster in mid-January, the prime minister will benefit from the fact that time will be running out for all options except her own.
In the meantime her enemies on the Conservative backbenches who launched an incompetent attempt to oust her last month are ready to strike again. After Monday’s chaos at Westminster, the chance of 48 MPs triggering a confidence vote in May’s leadership has increased, along with the risk that she would not survive it.