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Brexit

Theresa May Managed to Hang on—Here's What's Next for the UK

She might be bolstered by winning the vote of no confidence, but her authority is still ebbing away.

by Gavin Haynes
Dec 13 2018, 3:45pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

As a Prime Minister, Theresa May specializes in turning high drama into sprawling tedium, it was a poetic climax.

Two-hundred members of parliament voted to keep May as leader, and 117 voted to chuck her. A 63 percent referendum result in favor of Remain. Piss-poor, certainly less than she had expected, but still: hardly close. She fights on. But for what? And how?

After that brief interlude, we're right back to the main game: getting the draft agreement through parliament. It's still as impossible as it was on Tuesday. The DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] are still against it. The EU are still saying they won't budge. And the notion that the Eurosceptic third of her party will now simply shut up is fanciful. Yesterday, Chancellor Philip Hammond was calling his own colleagues "extremists who’ve been flushed out."

Half-right, Phil. They’re not flushed out, merely exposed. They’re Brussels' Viet Kong, prepared to die with a grenade between the teeth rather than leave the foxhole.

Funny how the worm turns. Two years ago, we were all talking about a realignment on the left. The Labour Party splitting into its Socialists and Social Democrat wings. Even six months ago the "new centrist party" mythology still had legs. Now, it’s the Tory Party that might come apart along its Brexit axis. Many on both sides of that line are willing it on. This week, Tory MP Heidi Allen said she’d rather resign the party whip than be led by Boris Johnson. That’s de facto splitting.

The confusion is made even more messy by limited options. You can’t rely on your own MPs or the DUP, so, until recently, Number ten had believed there was some cohort of Labour MPs that might vote with them.

Not as far-fetched as it sounds. In the 1970s, in order to take Britain into the Common Market, Conservative PM Ted Heath was forced to rely on the votes of Labour members to pass his legislation. In the same way, while they might not back her draft agreement at first, things are about to get very tight, and as the next few weeks unfold, cold realities will gradually trump high principles, and mutual self-interest will prevail.

After all, legally speaking, whatever happens, we will leave on March 29. If a new relationship is not agreed we leave with no two-year transition period, and we go back to WTO [World Trade Organization] tariffs.

But there is a vast majority in the House which is firmly against that scenario. So, faced with the devil and the deep blue sea, enough Labour MPs will peel off to avoid it, and put May over the line. This is still a hard sell, as, at present count, it'd have to be at least 80 of them—almost a third of the party.

Nice idea. But still unlikely. Labour are extremely dug-in; they smell blood. Who are these potential rebels? Well, there are no names in the frame yet, so it remains a pipe dream.

Even Nick Timothy, May’s former chief adviser, has announced that he can’t see the draft agreement making it through: "It's now clearer than before that there is no majority for her deal and no majority for no deal. We are left with Norway or a second referendum."

What to do? Just keep doing the only things you can do and hope. Now, she has yet another mission with no option for failure: Return to what she was doing on Tuesday, go to Brussels, and force them to tweak the Backstop. Success there might at least soothe some of her Brexiteers. Though hardly all of them.

She might be bolstered by the vote, but her authority is still ebbing away. To buy off her critics, May was forced to announce that she wouldn’t contest another election. Once a PM admits they are finite, power starts to drain away from them—and fast. We saw it happen with Blair’s final two years. It was happening to Cameron, before events guillotined him.

Their plot may have failed, but Brexiteers can at least take heart from one reason why May has been allowed by her party to continue: That whoever takes on the withdrawal agreement will almost certainly be destroyed by the process.

Is it just me, or does she seem to particularly revel in that part of the bargain? She is the queen of hand-wringing Anglican piety, self-sacrifice as a moral good, pathological humility as the highest pride of all. No wonder she looked almost radiant at the Despatch Box yesterday. We are witnessing the death and resurrection of Saint Theresa. Amen.

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