Theresa May scraped through the “vote of no confidence” in her leadership by 200 to 117. This is not a respectable result. Once those on the government’s payroll have been subtracted, the math looks worse—52% of Conservative backbench MPs do not have confidence in May’s leadership. Somehow the meme that May could do better in the negotiations with Brussels and that Brexit will be delayed and/or abandoned, got traction, but the clincher was when May promised that she would not stand in the next general election. After the secret ballot, outside No10, the Prime Minister trotted out as if on autopilot the same old tropes as before, indicating that 117 votes against her had barely had any effect. May still plans to deliver her interpretation of the Brexit people voted for—52% for leaving the EU and 48% against, an unacceptable compromise of democracy.
The binary positions of the Cabinet and MPs are evident. Philip Hammond called Brexiteers/Eurosceptics “extremists”, and Jacob Rees-Mogg called for May’s resignation on the grounds the Prime Minister cannot get her business through the House of Commons. Although the Conservative party is divided over May’s terms in the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, it is well known there are aspirants on both sides of the Tory Brexit argument who would like to take over; it is suspected that overall three quarters of the party are disappointed with her leadership. Nevertheless, two-faced MPs have been trying to muster support for the PM and her deal in the expectation of a mini Cabinet reshuffle.
To assist the vote going in the PM’s favour it looks like two MPs previously suspended for alleged sexual harassment were reinstated, before the vote the PM’s Chums-in-Chief whipped up MPs’ support. The PM gave a briefing to her 1922 Committee backbench MPs, confirming she would not lead them into the 2022 election. This relief caused some to vote in her favour. May also confirmed she had the support of the DUP, which was untrue as Nigel Dodds of the DUP refuted it minutes later. The DUP will jettison their so-called support in the unlikely event May’s deal passes in Parliament. It is thought that 200+ Conservative, DUP and Conservative MPs will reject the current May deal. The Meaningful Vote on May’s deal is reported to be on 14 January but is quite likely to be put to the House of Commons at the very last minute on 21 January. This will offer MPs May’s deal which they can accept or reject, accordingly various fail scenarios present themselves, one of which is the Cabinet persuading the Prime Minister to resign. While some admire the PM’s obdurate work ethic, many would prefer a more skilled and effective negotiator to deliver what 17.4million people voted, a conclusive Brexit.
The most likely way to pass May’s deal is to guarantee a unilateral exit mechanism to the Irish Border Backstop or to delete it altogether, thus the other 70 negative considerations could be examined in a more positive light. Alas, so far May has been incapable to negotiating this and signals from the EU suggest zero room for manoeuvre. May has said she is not expecting “an immediate breakthrough”. The best folks are anticipating is an “assurance” added to the Political Declaration that will commit all options to be explored before the Backstop is set in motion in the event of a No Deal, although this is not legally binding. No Deal preparations are being ramped up, but nobody expects it to be simple, barriers between businesses trading between UK-EU would emerge, EU citizens in UK and UK citizens in EU rights would be uncertain, new IT systems for import/export and VAT collection need to be in place and operational by 29 March; Whitehall will now be preparing with the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so future trading and service procedures are understood and budgeted for.
The good news is that in the event of No Deal, whereby no transition period comes into effect, the Swiss Federal Council agreed to replicate in substance the vast majority of trade agreements that currently regulate relations between Switzerland and the UK. The relevant parliamentary committees could be consulted as early as next year and approve the agreement, then it could be applied from the date on which the UK leaves the EU.