May survives confidence vote but faces battle over backstop

Prime minister wins by 200 votes to 117 and pledges to seek legal assurances from EU

Theresa May speaks outside Downing Street after winning a confidence vote in her leadership of the Tory party. Video: Reuters


Theresa May has won a confidence vote in her leadership of the Conservative Party, but by a narrower margin than expected and only after she promised to step down before the next general election. The British prime minister won by 200 votes to 117 after she promised MPs she would find a legally binding solution to the Northern Ireland backstop that would allow the DUP to support her Brexit deal.

Speaking outside 10 Downing Street after the vote, Mrs May said she would seek assurances on the backstop when she attends the European Council in Brussels on Thursday.

“I have heard what the House of Commons said about the Northern Ireland backstop and, when I go to the European Council tomorrow, I will be seeking legal and political assurances that will assuage the concerns that members of parliament have on that issue,” she said.

The prime minister’s victory is a setback to hardline Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) who sought to oust her in protest against the Brexit deal. The group’s chairman, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said Mrs May should resign despite the vote of confidence because she would be unable to win a majority in parliament for her Brexit deal.

“It’s a terrible result for the prime minister. About half the parliamentary party is either in government, a PPS [parliamentary private secretary] or a trade envoy – is in the pay of the prime minister one way or another. Out of the remaining 160 or 170, 117 voted against her. You have to assume the payroll would vote for their boss. The prime minister must realise that on all constitutional norms she ought to go and see the queen urgently,” he said.

Secret ballot

The confidence vote was triggered shortly before 8am on Wednesday when Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee of backbenchers, announced that he had received the 48 letters required. Addressing MPs ahead of the secret ballot, the prime minister said she would step down ahead of the next general election.

“In my heart I would have loved to have led us into the next election, but I realise that we will need a new leader with new objectives for the 2022 election,” she said.

Promising to find a legally binding solution to the backstop that would satisfy the DUP, she said the Brexit deal could only win a majority in the House of Commons with DUP support, adding that it would not be a success to pass a Brexit deal only to be unable to govern afterwards.

Earlier on Wednesday, Mrs May met DUP leader Arlene Foster and her deputy Nigel Dodds. Describing the meeting as useful, Ms Foster said she had made clear to the prime minister that only substantial changes to the backstop would satisfy her party. The backstop is a provision in the Brexit deal designed to ensure there will be no hard border in Ireland.


“We emphasised that tinkering around the edges would not work. We were not seeking assurances or promises. We wanted fundamental legal text changes,” Ms Foster said.

 Mrs May will address the other 27 EU leaders on Thursday evening and they will later discuss Brexit without her. Ahead of the meeting, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke by phone on Wednesday night with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

“Both agreed that the withdrawal agreement is a balanced compromise and the best outcome available. While they agreed to work to provide reassurance to the UK, the agreement cannot be reopened or contradicted,” the Government said in a statement. 

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