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Judgement Day for May

The prime minister may have survived a vote of no-confidence, but can she salvage a faltering Brexit deal?

The past few years will go down in history as some of the most tumultuous in British modern political history. And for good or for bad, Theresa May, in her short time in office, has been in power throughout which could be considered an astonishing fact, especially due to the nature of the role she is undertaking and the task she is facing.

She was once called a ‘bloody difficult woman’ by Kenneth Clarke, a Tory party grandee, and seems to have worn this badge with pride. This ‘bloody difficult woman’ has now faced down everything which seems to have been thrown at her. She has been knifed by her own party, rejected by the electorate and rebuked by parliament. Yet still she survives.

The seeds for this week were sown last week, with the defeat of the government three times in a row over the publication of the legal advice on Brexit. Then, having spent days debating a deal which already looked dead in the water, the prime minister pulled the vote on the deal, triggering outrage among MPs who were prepared to debate and seriously move the process forward.

“One would think that the most bruising thing for a leader to face is their own party wishing for her demise. However, the debacle she faced when returning to Brussels for the meeting with other EU leaders possibly trumped even that.”

This has now been postponed, with an assurance from Number 10 that the vote will be held before the 21st of January. However, this was not enough for the furious Conservative MPs. By Wednesday morning, Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee, had announced that 48 letters of no confidence had reached him, and thus a vote was to occur. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Steve Baker and other members of the ERG, the Eurosceptic group of Conservative MPs, were ruthless, openly stating that they want to see her gone forthwith.

In order to save her skin, Theresa May made the ultimate concession and openly announced to the Tory MPs she will not fight an election in 2022. Consequently, she managed to survive with 200 voting for her, and 117 voting against. Now, according to the rules of the Conservative party she cannot be challenged for a year.

However, this is not a good result by any stretch of the imagination. Over a third of her party wish to see her gone, and as this is a hung parliament, she needs every vote in order to pass her deal. Fresh off the ‘triumph’ of this win, she declared she would take her deal back to the collective EU leaders and attempt to find a commitment from them that would reassure her MPs that the dreaded Backstop will never come into place.

One would think that the most bruising thing for a leader to face is their own party wishing for her demise. However, the debacle she faced when returning to Brussels for the meeting with other EU leaders possibly trumped even that. At least the PM was aware she was unlikely to lose the no-confidence vote – there is no art to when 48 letters reach the 1922 Committee as it is a firm secret kept by the chairman and on this occasion, it occurred before a coherent opposition to May’s leadership could be unified.

But the majority of planning and minutiae of summits occurs before the leaders get there, so they can be pretty sure of what they are walking into. By every source, the EU had been prepared to be forthcoming for the prime minister and help salvage the Brexit deal. However, Theresa May proceeded to torpedo the goodwill she had built up in spectacular fashion, at an after-dinner speech she gave to the other EU leaders. In it, she resurrected ideas already dismissed months ago during the negotiations, she came up with no plan to unify the British parliament other than ‘trust her’, and generally presented no new thinking to help progress.

It was more of the same old atypical May vagueness and the EU leaders reacted swiftly. In one swoop, they removed all the sections in the withdrawal agreement guaranteeing that the EU would look for alternatives to the Backstop as well as that it was unfavourable for both parties. They had become fed up with the same-old and were now putting on the pressure on the UK to come up with something different. The impetus for ideas which will get the deal through parliament must come from May – it can no longer be up to the EU to concede. As Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission put it, ‘When it comes to the future relationship, our British friends need to say what they want, rather than asking us what we want.’

Now, where the prime minister can go from here is difficult. Although not a complete disaster, this summit will have done her no favours either domestically or abroad. Calls for a second referendum are growing louder, but to renege on her absolute commitment against that would be seen as disastrous. Both Tony Blair and Amber Rudd have suggested that she starts to reach across the aisle and build a consensus using cross-party support. Whether she is able to swallow her pride enough to do this remains to be seen – but as an effectively lame-duck prime minister, does she have anything more to lose?

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