Theresa May survives confidence vote but says she will not lead Tories into next election
Conservative MPs back British prime minister as Brexit deal hangs in the balance
British prime minister and Conservative Party leader Theresa May has survived a vote of confidence in her leadership on Wednesday evening.
The vote was called after more than 48 of her MPs wrote to the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee calling for a leadership challenge over her Brexit deal.
The challenge followed the prime minister’s decision to postpone a vote in parliament on her Brexit deal rather than face certain defeat amid widespread Conservative opposition to the terms of the backstop, a provision to avoid a hard Border in Ireland that is enshrined in the deal.
The secret ballot among Tory MPs opened at 6pm at Wednesday and closed at 8pm, with the result announced at 9pm. 200 of the 317 Tory MPs voted for her, while 117 voted against her, giving her a majority of 83.
Mrs May addressed members of the Conservative 1922 Committee at 5pm before the ballot opened. A banging of desks could be heard from outside committee room 14 in the Palace of Westminster as she addressed the meeting.
Mrs May reportedly told those present she will step down before the next general election, due in 2022, as she recognised that the party did not want her to lead them into the vote. However, she said there would not be a snap election.
She also said she wanted to come back by January 21st with something on the backstop that the DUP would accept.
The DUP, which supports Mrs May’s minority government, is currently opposed to the deal due to the backstop.
Speaking outside Number 10 after the vote, Mrs May said she had a “renewed mission – delivering the Brexit people voted for, bringing the country back together and building a country that really works for everyone”.
“Whilst I’m grateful for . . . support, a significant number of colleagues did cast a vote against me, and I have listened to what they said.”
She said she would seek legal and political assurances from EU leaders on Thursday on the backstop arrangement.
Responding to the vote, leader of the opposition British Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn said: “The prime minister has lost her majority in parliament, her government is in chaos and she is unable to deliver a Brexit deal that works for the country and puts jobs and the economy first.
“She must now bring her dismal deal back to the House of Commons next week so parliament can take back control.”
Prominent Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chairman of the European Research Group, said the result was “terrible” for Theresa May and she should resign.
“Constitutionally if a prime minister can’t get her business through the House of Commons . . . and then discovers that the overwhelming majority of her backbenchers have voted against her, she clearly doesn’t have the confidence of the House of Commons and she should make way for someone who does.”
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said Wednesday’s vote did not change much. He said that as it stands the party would not support a no-confidence motion in the British government, but it might do if parliament passes the current deal.
In a statement outside Number 10 on Wednesday morning, Mrs May said: “I will contest that vote with everything I’ve got.”
A planned trip to Dublin to meet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was cancelled, with Mrs May instead remaining in London “to make the case for my leadership with my parliamentary colleagues”.
“A change of leadership in the Conservative Party now would put our country’s future at risk and create uncertainty when we can least afford it,” said Mrs May.
A leadership election would not change the fundamentals of the Brexit negotiation, she said.
“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. The only people whose interests would be served would be Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.”
Mrs May also said that a new leader would not have time to renegotiate Brexit and secure parliamentary approval for another deal in time for the UK’s planned exit from the EU at the end of March, meaning the article 50 withdrawal notice would have to be extended or rescinded.
Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, said after a meeting with Mrs May on Wednesday that a new Tory leader was not necessary to get a better Brexit deal, but warned that “tinkering around the edges” of the withdrawal agreement would not be enough to win the DUP’s support for the deal.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker spoke by telephone on Wednesday evening, and an Irish Government spokesman said both insisted that the withdrawal agreement “cannot be reopened or contradicted”.
The pair “both agreed that the withdrawal agreement is a balanced compromise and the best outcome available”.
In a bid to bolster Mrs May’s position, the Conservative whip was restored on Wednesday to Burton MP Andrew Griffiths and Dover MP Charlie Elphicke.
However, there was consternation over the restoration of the whip to Mr Griffiths, a former chief of staff to Mrs May who had been suspended over suggestive text messages.
On Wednesday afternoon, government ministers in the House of Lords issued a statement in support of Mrs May.
The statement read: “The government frontbench team in the House of Lords fully supports the prime minister.
“Theresa May is the right person to lead both the country and the Conservative Party and we urge our colleagues in the Commons to vote to support her this evening.”
At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Mrs May told MPs she had “made some progress” in Brexit talks following her dash to Europe after cancelling the parliamentary vote on her deal, before saying that Labour’s approach to the issue was: “No plan, no clue, no Brexit.”
Mr Corbyn warned “nothing has changed” with Mrs May’s Brexit deal and demanded a vote on it before Christmas.
Tory grandee Ken Clarke used the opportunity to hit out at his colleagues for calling the leadership vote, saying: “At a time of grave national crisis on an issue that we all agree is hugely important to future generations, can the prime minister think of anything more unhelpful, irrelevant and irresponsible than for the Conservative Party to embark on weeks of a Conservative leadership election?”
In Dublin, Ministers and spokespeople were instructed to “go dark” and refrain from commenting on the Conservative motion.
One Government source speculated that if Mrs May had a strong win in the confidence vote, Conservative waverers might rally behind her, while EU leaders could be prompted to give her concessions to make a Commons vote on the deal easier to pass.
In the Dáil on Wednesday, Mr Varadkar said that the substance of the Brexit withdrawal agreement could not be changed, and while he and other EU leaders would work to provide assurances to the UK in terms of future relations, there could be no question of removing the backstop.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald responded to the situation by stepping up calls for a referendum on Irish unity in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit.
German chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated that the EU would not change the Brexit deal it has spent two years negotiating, ahead of an EU summit on Thursday and Friday.
Mrs May’s spokesman said on Wednesday afternoon that the PM would raise the issue of the backstop at the summit.
“It is obviously an opportunity for the PM to address the 27 [other EU leaders] about the message that the House of Commons has sent about wanting more assurances about the backstop,” he said.
Speculation that a challenge to Mrs May could be imminent was fuelled after chief whip Julian Smith and Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis were seen leaving Number 10 following late-night consultations on Tuesday.
Immediate statements of loyalty for Mrs May were issued by every MP in cabinet, including several who have been touted as possible successors.
Home secretary Sajid Javid tweeted: “The last thing our country needs right now is a Conservative Party leadership election. Will be seen as self-indulgent and wrong. PM has my full support and is best person to ensure we leave EU on 29 March.”
Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt later said: “I am backing Theresa May tonight. Being PM [is the] most difficult job imaginable right now and the last thing the country needs is a damaging and long leadership contest.”
In a joint statement, Mr Rees-Mogg and his deputy Steve Baker had said: “Theresa May’s plan would bring down the government if carried forward. But our party will rightly not tolerate it.
“Conservatives must now answer whether they wish to draw ever closer to an election under Mrs May’s leadership. In the national interest, she must go.” – Additional reporting: PA/Reuters