What the Theresa May Vote of No Confidence Means for Brexit

Could the UK's Conservative Party even hold a leadership election right now?

by Gavin Haynes
Dec 12 2018, 6:00pm

Theresa May arriving at Downing Street on Monday after delaying the meaningful vote on Brexit (Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo)

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

The little game of Blind Man's Bluff—where no Tory [Conservative Party] member of parliament was quite sure how many others had submitted letters of no confidence in Theresa May—is over. The required threshold of 48 MPs, 15 percent of the party, has been met.

At 6 PM tonight, in Meeting Room 14 of the House of Commons, Theresa May will be facing a Vote of No Confidence (VONC) from her 315 MPs. Crucially, they will vote secretly. While few have spoken up against the leader publicly, in private, MPs will tonight be free to go with their darker impulses.

No one is sure where this vote will take the UK. What we do know is that the Tories are always more than happy to wield the dagger.

In 2001, Iain Duncan Smith became the first Tory leader to be elected under the new rules drawn up in 1998. In 2003, he became the first to be dumped by the party under the same rules. Back then, he lost by 90 votes to 75. Theresa May would be quite happy to win by a majority of one. In 1990, Mrs. Thatcher famously won the first round of a leadership ballot, but decided to resign because she didn't win it by a large enough margin to command the respect of her party. Even in the second round, after she'd pulled out, she still polled more than former Prime Minister John Major.

But Mrs. May has no great interest in the respect of her party. The old honor codes have faded away, in part because she views her present mission as too serious to be diverted from. In part because she is scrapping to save her historical reputation: to avoid pulling the wooden spoon from a hundred years' worth of PMs.

A win of one will allow her to keep going. And winning by even one will mean she is safe from another leadership challenge for 12 months. Given the fevered state of politics, that means she could be doing the one thing MPs swore they wouldn't let her do: face another General Election. This will weigh heavily upon their minds.

In previous weeks, many thought they could time their run. Use her to get through the bloody, messy, unpopular bit of deal-making, then dispense with her services once that was done. But now she has lost even that level of backing. Monday’s withdrawn vote was final proof for many that she has completely lost control of her party.

She cannot govern, and either the Tories tell her that or Parliament will, soon enough. Even if she wins today—in a VONC among the Conservative Party—she may in any case face a VONC in the House of Commons this side of Christmas, brought about by the Labour Party.

If the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] won’t back her in that, then we go to a snap election. Which, logistically, couldn’t really be held before the middle of February.

We’d then have six weeks to think of a way to exit the EU, and parliament would also be required to have its say—let alone the fact that the EU Parliament would also have to rubber stamp it.

If May survives today, the Brexiteers could be judged to have lost. They will be under increasing pressure to back the hated Draft Agreement. The only option left to them would be a selfish one—continue to vote against it, and wantonly tip the party into a crisis general election.

If May loses, everything is down to the wire. In 1998, William Hague devised a new system for Tory leadership contests, and its structure is now crucial. MPs vote to whittle the candidates down to a final two. These are then sent out to thousands of party members, for balloting. The whole process is supposed to take three months. That can’t happen now.

Things must be sped up, and various voices are trying to assure everyone that this can happen (perhaps the ones that assured us Brexit could be painless and civil?). In short, conservatives are staking their credibility on the efficiency of the privatized Royal Mail to deliver their leadership race ballots, at Christmas.

Suppose it comes to that? The moment Boris Johnson makes it into that final two, he wins. His popularity in the country is vastly more than his popularity in the party. But Boris is not popular with his colleagues. He might be affable, but he is a loner, aloof from the tearooms and quiet drinking holes that make up Westminster life. The race, amongst his many detractors, will be to take him out, ahead of time.

It won’t be easy. Last week he was displaying a nifty new short haircut, and he has apparently lost 12 pounds in two weeks. He seems to be answering questions in full sentences. This is his Rocky sequel. He is in no mood for games.

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