Day of drama ends with victory for May in confidence vote
Prime minister tells MPs she recognises she cannot lead Tories into election set for 2022
“The result of the ballot this evening is that the parliamentary party does have confidence in Theresa May’s leadership of the Conservative Party,” he said to cheers and a standing ovation from MPs.
Brady, who chairs the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, had launched a 13-hour political drama at Westminster when he announced shortly before 8am that he had received the 48 letters required to trigger a confidence vote. He had spoken to the prime minister at 10.35pm the night before and agreed to hold the ballot on Wednesday evening.
May’s critics complained that the timing gave her an advantage because it left them little time to prepare for the vote and to persuade their colleagues that it was time for her to go. When the prime minister appeared outside 10 Downing Street an hour after Brady made his announcement, it was clear that she was fully prepared for the challenge.
Promising to contest the vote “with everything I’ve got” she said a change of leadership would create uncertainty and put Brexit at risk.
“A new leader wouldn’t be in place by the 21st of January legal deadline, so a leadership election risks handing control of the Brexit negotiations to opposition MPs in Parliament. The new leader wouldn’t have time to renegotiate a withdrawal agreement and get the legislation through parliament by the 29th of March, 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.
“And a leadership election would not change the fundamentals of the negotiation or the parliamentary arithmetic. Weeks spent tearing ourselves apart will only create more division, just as we should be standing together to serve our country. None of that would be in the national interest.”
Recalling her promise on the steps of Downing Street when she succeeded David Cameron as prime minister to govern on behalf of those who were “just managing”, she said the Conservative party must be about more than Brexit.
“We are a party of the whole nation – moderate, pragmatic, mainstream; committed to reuniting our country and building a country that works for everyone; the agenda I set out in my first speech outside this front door; delivering the Brexit people voted for; building a country that works for everyone. I have devoted myself unsparingly to these tasks ever since I became prime minister and I stand ready to finish the job,” she said.
Cabinet ministers tweeted support for the prime minister throughout the morning, although some of those first out of the traps had hours before been plotting their leadership campaigns if she lost. By the time May arrived in the House of Commons chamber for prime minister’s questions at noon, a majority of Conservative MPs had already said they would support her.
With her husband Philip looking on from the gallery, May arrived into the chamber to roars of approval from her own benches. Boris Johnson, arms folded, glared ahead of him, Jacob Rees-Mogg appeared grave and anxious and Brexiteer bovver boy Andrew Bridgen looked as if he wanted to cave somebody’s head in.
Across the aisle, the DUP’s 10 MPs sat grim-faced as May turned each of Jeremy Corbyn’s six questions into an opportunity for cheap partisan shots that won cheers from the benches behind her. When Corbyn has criticised the backstop in recent weeks for creating more regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, the DUP’s MPs have nodded along eagerly.
But when the Labour leader beat his Orange drum on Wednesday, the DUP remained still and unsmiling, reluctant to give Tory MPs the impression that they were consorting with the enemy.
The DUP were crucial to the Brexiteers’ case as they argued that the unionist MPs would abandon the Conservatives if May remained leader. So getting rid of her was the only way to avoid the risk of an early general election in which they could lose their seats.
“At a time of grave national crisis on an issue that we all agree is of huge importance to future generations, can my right honourable friend think of anything more unhelpful, irrelevant and irresponsible than for the Conservative party to embark on weeks of a Conservative leadership election?” he said.
May replied that changing leader would take so long that her successor would have to “extend article 50 or rescind it, which would mean either delaying or stopping Brexit”.
After PMQs, May’s aides said she would be meeting MPs during the afternoon, fighting for every vote. And they suggested that if she won the confidence vote she would not expect to lead her party into the next general election.
“This vote isn’t about who leads the party into the next election. It is about whether it makes sense to change leader at this point in the Brexit negotiations. She’s said on a number of occasions, in fact she said after the last general election, that she would serve as long as her colleagues wanted her to,” a spokesman said.
The prime minister did indeed make that commitment after last year’s election but during a visit to Japan two months later she said she wanted to remain in power “for the long term”. Under party rules, the Conservative leader can be challenged only once every 12 months and May’s allies had long feared that this immunity from challenge would damage her in a confidence vote.
Some MPs had expected the prime minister to hint during her speech to the 1922 Committee that she would step down before the next election, to reassure those who could not countenance facing the voters again under her leadership. The fact that her aides trailed the news a few hours early suggested that they might not be sure that all those who promised publicly to vote for the prime minister would follow through in the secret ballot.
May’s allies were sounding increasingly confident as the afternoon went on, however, with chancellor Philip Hammond smacking his lips in anticipation of a humiliation for the hard Brexiteers.
“I’m very clear that the prime minister will have the support of the great majority of parliamentary colleagues. And I think what this vote today will do is flush out the extremists who are trying to advance a particular agenda which would really not be in the interests of the British people or the British economy. Leaving the European Union without a deal would be bad for Britain,” he said.
As Westminster settled into a view that May was on course to win the confidence vote, the focus turned towards how great her margin of victory might be. Although in normal circumstances a rebellion of more than 100 MPs would raise questions about a prime minister’s future, the consensus was that in current circumstances she could afford to lose the support of about 120.
Fifteen minutes before the 1922 Committee meeting was due to begin, the corridor outside Committee Room 14 was already packed with reporters as MPs began to file in. The prime minister arrived a few minutes after 5pm to be greeted by a sustained banging of desks.
She told the MPs that she would have liked to lead the party into the next general election in 2022, not least to make up for last year’s debacle when she lost the Conservative majority but she recognised that she could not do so. A number of MPs said the announcement moved some ministers to tears and George Freeman described it as a “powerful and moving moment” but Jacob Rees-Mogg was sceptical.
“The PM hedged her bets on the question of leading the party into the 2022 election – she said she had no intention, but the word ‘intention’ is a classic politician’s word, because it can change,” he said.
May told the meeting that she had met Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds earlier in the afternoon and that she wanted to find a legally binding solution to the backstop that would satisfy the DUP. She said the Brexit deal could win a majority in the House of Commons only with the support of the DUP, adding that it would not be a success to pass a Brexit deal only to be unable to govern afterwards.
At 6pm the MPs started voting, queuing to cast their ballots inside the committee room. Among those who voted were Charlie Elphicke and Andrew Griffiths, who had the Conservative whip restored to them on Wednesday afternoon following a suspension. Elphicke was suspended for alleged sexual offences which he denies and Griffiths for sending lewd texts.
Their return to the parliamentary party raised the number required for victory to 159 but is unlikely to have affected the outcome because Elphicke planned to vote against the prime minister and Griffiths to support her. When Brady announced the result in Committee Room 14 it was 200 votes in favour of the prime minister and 117 against.