UK prime minister, Theresa May, claimed victory last night when a motion of no confidence in her leadership of the Conservative party was defeated.
In her effort to win the support of her party’s MPs, the prime minister addressed them in parliament before the vote was taken. She promised that she would not lead the Conservative party into the 2022 general election. This move, which may have helped her win last night, means that her authority is weakened and those who want to succeed her as party leader will progressively put their own interests ahead of hers.
As 2022 draws closer, the pressure on her to hand over the reigns of power will grow. However, it was not clear last night what Mrs May would do if an election were called before 2022. For the moment she stays as leader of her party and country. The challenge to her leadership has not changed the parliamentary arithmatic that currently says the deal she has with the EU cannot command a majority and faces almost certain defeat.
The prime minister is in Brussels today, attending an emergency summit of EU leaders, called to see what can be done to amend the deal on offer and give Mrs May a better chance of getting it passed by the British parliament. It would need a very dramatic change to satisfy her own hard-line MPs and particularly the Democratic Unionist Party MPs from Northern Ireland. Mrs May needs them to give her a majority in parliament. A fundamental adjustment to the deal the EU has offered looks highly unlikely, though, like everything in this Brexit saga, anything could happen.
Only Conservative MPs could vote on the motion last night. The no-confidence motion was tabled by MPs from her own party as opposed to the Brexit deal she has struck with the EU. It was defeated by 200 votes for Mrs May to 117 who wanted her to go.
On paper, this looks like a comfortable win for Mrs May. In reality, its a serious blow. A third of her party voted to have her stand down. Nor is she highly regarded by many Conservative MPs who voted for her. Their thinking was that the country would badly punish the Conservative party for indulging in a leadership contest while the deal with Brexit remains unresolved and the UK scheduled to leave the EU at the end of March 2019.
Compare Mrs May’s position with that of Margaret Thatcher 20 years ago. Facing a challenge to her leadership, Mrs Thatcher won 204 votes against 152 for her opponent, Michael Heseltine. She concluded that she no longer commanded the confidence of her party and resigned.
Mr Heseltine, by the way, was then defeated in the contest for the new party leader by John Major (now Sir John), who then also became prime minister. Michael Heseltine (now Lord Heseltine) was considered too pro-EU by many Conservative MPs. Then as now, the issue of Europe is the party’s greatest point of fracture.