There wasn’t much of a honeymoon Wednesday for Britain’s embattled Theresa May after she survived a bid to oust her by critics from her own Conservative party.
Standing outside No. 10 Downing Street after an internal party vote she won but not emphatically, May pledged she will “get on with the job of delivering Brexit.”
But the British leader’s opponents from both the euroskeptic and pro-European Union wings of her party were not silenced, warning her survival has done nothing to improve the chances of getting the House of Commons to approve her contentious Brexit deal.
More than a third of the Conservative lawmakers voted against her, preferring to see the party elect a new leader, underscoring the mountain she still has to scale in getting her Brexit deal through a Parliament that has grave doubts about the agreement.
Many in party vote against May
Conservative lawmakers rejected a no-confidence motion to May’s leadership, 200-117, but the win has merely exposed the bitter split in her party over Britain’s departure from the EU and provides no clues as to how May can plot a course out of the Brexit maze, analysts say.
Ominously, most lawmakers who don’t have government jobs or positions voted for May to go.
Even May loyalists conceded privately that her win was hardly a ringing endorsement.
Her critics, as well as Britain’s opposition parties, quickly pointed out that surviving an attempt to topple her changes nothing when it comes to the arithmetic in the House of Commons, where a majority oppose a Brexit withdrawal deal, which took months of haggling with the EU to negotiate.
Before May had even finished talking about a “renewed mission” and her hope of “bringing the country back together,” hardcore euroskeptics in her party announced in a statement, “We cannot and will not support the disastrous withdrawal agreement the prime minister has negotiated.”
They warned that if she pushes ahead with it, the likelihood is that she will be setting the country on course for a general election.
May runs a minority government. With the main parties splintered, the House of Commons is deadlocked, and there’s no majority for anything when it comes to Brexit, including crashing out without a deal, staying in, or holding a second referendum. There is only a majority against her deal.
The warning from Conservative euroskeptics was echoed by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 lawmakers in the House of Commons prop up the minority Conservative government.
The DUP is deeply opposed to the withdrawal agreement that would see Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of Britain, in order to avoid the imposition of customs checks on the border separating Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. They fear the different treatment will end up weakening the ties between the province and London.
May spoke to DUP leader Arlene Foster shortly before the confidence vote, trying to persuade her to withdraw her opposition to the deal.
Foster later said she “emphasized that tinkering around the edges would not work. … We wanted fundamental legal text changes.”
Brexit vote delayed
On Monday, May delayed a scheduled House of Commons vote on the exit deal as it became clear lawmakers were set to reject it. Defeat would likely force May out of No. 10 Downing Street and possibly trigger the fall of the Conservative government and an early general election.
May’s deal, which tries to square the circle between Britons who want to remain in the EU and Brexiters who want a clean, sharp break, would see Britain locked in a customs union with the EU for several years while it negotiates a more permanent, but vaguely defined, free trade settlement with its largest trading partner.
In the temporary customs union, Britain would be unable to influence EU laws, regulations and product standards it would have to observe. It would be not be able to implement free trade deals with non-EU countries.
Opposition parties also warned that May’s remaining as prime minister would not lessen parliamentary opposition to the deal.
“Tonight’s vote changes nothing,” Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said. “Theresa May has lost her majority in Parliament. Her government is in chaos, and she’s unable to deliver a Brexit deal that works for the country and puts jobs and the economy first.”
It is unclear when a Brexit vote in the House of Commons might take place.
Back to Brussels
Some government managers said the vote could happen next week or even be delayed until next month. All May has said is that it will take place by Jan. 21, a cut-off date for Parliament to get legislation through in time for Britain’s scheduled departure March 29.
May will fly Thursday to Brussels to appeal once again to her fellow EU leaders to agree to concessions. But she tried that Tuesday, criss-crossing Europe on a whistle-stop diplomatic tour that took her to Berlin and The Hague, but got no agreement on anything substantive.