Theresa May’s 200-117 victory in Wednesday’s confidence vote was clear enough to be decisive but close enough to ensure that she will continue to face a large, mutinous bloc of backbenchers. She won in part because she promised MPs that they will not have to face the electorate again under her leadership.
More than a third of Conservative MPs, probably including more than half of those on the backbenches, no longer have confidence in her leadership. But Conservative Party rules mean she is immune to another challenge to her leadership for 12 months, by which time Britain should have left the European Union.
With no risk of being ousted and no hope of leading her party into another election, the prime minister no longer has to look over her shoulder. She could, for example, seek to unlock a cross-party majority for a soft Brexit in defiance of hardline Brexiteers in her own party and in the DUP. But her innate caution and the promises she made on Wednesday to stay in power suggest that such a bold course remains the remotest of possibilities.
The prime minister made two commitments to MPs: to leave office before the 2022 general election and to secure a legally binding solution to the Northern Ireland backstop that would win the DUP’s support for her Brexit deal. Her acknowledgement that she could not lead her party into the next election moved some ministers to tears and may have persuaded a couple of dozen MPs to vote for her.
But her declaration that no Brexit deal could pass without the support of the DUP was more consequential, setting a bar for the next stage of negotiations with the EU that may be impossible to overcome. She told MPs that it would not be a success to pass a Brexit deal only to find that, without the support of the DUP, she could not govern.
May had what she described as a positive meeting on Wednesday afternoon with DUP leader Arlene Foster and her deputy Nigel Dodds. The DUP have made clear that nothing short of a unilateral exit mechanism that would effectively kill the backstop will satisfy them.
The EU is open to offering clarifications on the backstop, although senior officials say no new legally binding text can encroach on the terms of the backstop set out in the withdrawal agreement, which cannot be renegotiated. May’s commitment to find a solution the DUP can accept could set her on a course that makes a deal with the EU impossible.
Or it could simply be the latest in the long trail of broken promises that has littered her premiership from the day she entered Downing Street.