Things are looking up for British Prime Minister Theresa May. It has been almost 24 hours and none of her senior Cabinet ministers have resigned.
After a turbulent few days, the PM appears to have stared down critics from within her own ruling Conservative party, after coming under significant pressure following the resignation of two senior aides — Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis. Both dramatically fled over what they viewed as her watered-down plan for how the U.K. would leave the European Union next year.
May hosted a meeting of her new-look Cabinet on Tuesday after warning party members that failure to unite behind her leadership would inevitably lead to electoral defeat — and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn entering Downing Street as the next prime minister.
In the wake of Johnson’s resignation Monday, there was widespread speculation that May’s position was in jeopardy, but a rumored “no-confidence” motion from her own party has so far yet to materialize.
"I do think it would be extremely foolish and extremely ill-advised for anyone to send in letters to mount a motion of no confidence in the prime minister and I am delighted that good sense seems to be breaking out." former Conservative leader Michael Howard told the BBC Tuesday.
Such is the febrile atmosphere around Downing Street that a missed press call by pro-Brexit minister Michael Gove led to speculation Tuesday that he would be joining Johnson and Davis by resigning from Cabinet.
It later emerged that his absence was due to a diary mixup rather than a sinister coup.
Following Johnson and Davis’s exit, May’s new Cabinet boasts a preponderance of ministers far more aligned to a softer form of Brexit. Yet May’s position remains tenuous, with a significant portion of the party unhappy with her Brexit plan, and the next 48 hours will be critical to her political survival.
A poll published by YouGov Tuesday suggests the confusion in London is mirrored by a confusion among the British electorate, with most people saying they don’t know whether May or Corbyn would make a better prime minister.
What has happened?
May gathered her senior ministers Friday for a summit at her country retreat to present a plan for how the U.K. was going to leave the EU, which received the full backing of her cabinet.
But over the weekend, support quickly fell away. On Sunday, Davis — the man responsible for leading the U.K.’s negotiations with the EU for the past two years — resigned saying May’s plan was “unworkable.”
Less than 24 hours later Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also quit after it emerged he had slammed May’s plan during the summit as akin to “polishing a turd.”
In his resignation letter, Johnson said the Brexit “dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”
The resignations sparked a major cabinet reshuffle with Dominic Raab and Jeremy Hunt gaining promotion.
Is May going to face a leadership challenge?
It remains unclear whether May will face an official challenge to her position as Tory leader.
In order for a no confidence vote to be triggered, at least 15 percent of Tory MPs (48 members) must write to the 1922 Committee — an influential body of backbench MPs — calling for a vote. So far Graham Brady, chairman of the committee, says he has not received a sufficient number of letters.
Along with Johnson, the candidate most likely to challenge May is arch-Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg. However, the fact he has yet to submit a letter of no-confidence in May suggests he is biding his time.
Indeed, some watchers have noted that now May is rid of her most problematic Cabinet ministers, she is in a far stronger position to push through her policies.
What does this all mean for Brexit?
With Hunt’s appointment to foreign secretary, the four major positions at the head of the U.K. government — prime minister, chancellor, foreign secretary and home secretary — are all filled by people who voted to remain in the EU but are now tasked with negotiating a path out.
May’s plan has been dismissed by Brexiteers as a “semi-Brexit” — a diluted version that retains many ties to the EU.
Yet it appears Tory Eurosceptics are planning on working from within to change May’s plan rather than replacing her altogether.
That means the U.K. is in for a further period of instability and confusion, as a government led by people who don’t believe in Brexit finalize a framework to present to the EU by August.
That plan must then be approved by the U.K. parliament and EU members.
The latest crisis has sparked fears in Brussels that political paralysis in London could led to a scenario in which no-deal is agreed between the EU and the U.K. by the deadline — a potential economic calamity for both parties.
“Politicians come and go," Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said. "But the problems they have created for the people remain. The mess caused by Brexit is the biggest problem in the history of EU-U.K. relations. And it is still very far from being solved."
Cover image: Theresa May prepares to meet the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at 10 Downing Street on July 9, 2018 in London, England. (John Phillips/Getty Images)