Theresa May survived the attempt to get rid of her from within her own party in December. But it was a sign of her abject weakness that she won the no-confidence vote by promising to go before the next scheduled election.
The fact that 200 Tory MPs backed her did nothing to resolve the crisis her government, her party and the British ruling class face over Brexit. It merely ruled out a switch of Tory prime minister for at least a year, unless May is ordered out by Tory grandees, and confirmed most MPs have no stomach for Britain to leave the EU with no deal.
May’s ducking of a parliamentary vote on her Brexit agreement also confirmed the government’s desire to avoid no deal, although that remains a possibility. The prime minister could not countenance handing the initiative to parliament, but she may face no alternative when she returns to put the deal and whatever concessions she gains from EU leaders to a vote, now expected this month.
It’s worth noting May was advised by senior Tories to delay the vote, including by 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady who received the no-confidence letters which triggered the move against her.
Removing May risked a Tory civil war which has little obvious resonance outside Westminster. Polls suggested May’s standing even rose through the crisis. Her Brexit-supporting opponents had no clear alternative candidate for leader and no coherent alternative proposal. Europhile Conservatives were also divided, some favouring a so-called “Norway-plus” deal which would keep Britain in the EU single market, others not.
However, the size of the Tory rebellion meant Labour could win a no-confidence vote in parliament if only a small minority of the Brexiters or the DUP decided to bring down the government.
So May could fall at any moment, though were she to lose a no-confidence vote in parliament she would have 14 days to win a subsequent vote before having to stand down.
The events of December thus tipped the odds towards a general election or even another referendum. Former Tory leader William Hague estimated the prospects of the latter at 40 percent in an address to business leaders. But Conservative political commentator Tim Montgomerie ridiculed the idea, pointing out it would mean “political death” for any senior Tory who supported it.
In the meantime, May sought help from EU leaders while warehouse owners and letting companies made a killing. The FT reported: “Brexit-related stockpiling is driving up the cost of short-term space in warehouses as companies guard against a no-deal outcome that could cause gridlock at ports.” The Bank of England reported companies so desperate they were taking “chilled storage for non-perishable goods”.
Recall how May got to this point. She delighted Tory Eurosceptics in 2017 when she set Britain’s EU departure date at the end of March 2019, a pledge which the FT noted “horrified senior civil servants, none of whom were consulted”. One senior Whitehall figure told the business paper, “She literally did not understand what she said.”
The 2017 general election, when the Corbyn-led Labour Party defied ridicule in the media and sabotage from within to erase May’s majority in parliament, changed the political balance of forces. May had to rely on the Loyalist bigots of the DUP to govern and appease the Brexiters in her party and her cabinet rather than take them on as the policy she pursued dictated. She sought to hold the party together while fulfilling the Tories’ historic role of acting in the interests of British capital, reflected in the majority desire among business leaders to stay in the EU, and delivered a deal that satisfied neither.
The Irish “backstop” which has proved such a sticking point was aimed at avoiding a hard border in Ireland — to square the circle of keeping Northern Ireland in the UK while preventing the reestablishment of border controls and customs between North and South. This has major economic implications for the Republic and the North. Yet maintaining UK “sovereignty” in the North would inevitably be a point of principle to Tory Brexiters and an absolute necessity to the DUP on which May depends. How ironic that Britain’s establishment should be caught on the rusty nail of Ireland’s partition which it arranged at the fag-end of empire.
There are pressures on the EU side. Europe’s leaders are desperate to avoid no deal. They have an agreement they would like to make stick.
The FT reported German Chancellor Merkel sent a message which “rattled the Irish premier” that no deal would mean no backstop. A former EU trade official suggested, “There is a point where Ireland becomes a liability for the EU.”
Various forms of “clarification” have been touted, involving “side letters, supplementary protocols, unilateral declarations on future intentions”. A re-draft of the UK-EU political declaration, the 26-page statement of intent on future relations which accompanied the 585-page withdrawal agreement, was one possibility. Another was a switch to an earlier version of the withdrawal agreement which retained the option of a customs union, left the transition period open to extension and removed the need for a “backstop”.
Or Brussels might repeat a move made in previous crises in 1992, 2009 and 2016 to concoct an agreement under international law which provides “legal comfort on the implications of a treaty without changing the treaty”. The EU is, after all, a master of getting an agreement over the line by whatever means necessary.
Crucially, FT columnist Wolfgang Munchau pointed out triggering the backstop would breach the EU’s own “red lines”, allowing Britain membership of a customs union with none of the attached rules. He noted, “From the EU’s perspective it is essential the backstop is either never triggered or stays as short as possible.”
May hoped to frame the choice for MPs in January as between her deal and a chaotic no deal. The FT noted May’s instructions “to ramp up full-scale no-deal planning will have the purpose of conveying a sense of impending chaos”.
In the words of an unnamed Tory MP, “All our options are shit. We keep making shit decision after shit decision in the hope that it’s less shit than the alternative.”
Yet, ultimately, the debacle reflects the relative decline of British capitalism and the conflict among its class representatives about the way forward. Small wonder the party most tied to that class and dripping with nostalgia for its former position in the world should be convulsed.
Unfortunately, Labour has appeared equally paralysed. The Corbyn leadership stuck to insisting it would call a no-confidence vote at “exactly the right moment” and seek a general election. Yet to succeed this would need the backing of Tory and DUP MPs.
At the same time, shadow chancellor John McDonnell appeared to move towards support for another referendum, suggesting in early December that Britain would “inevitably end up holding” one. He told the FT that Labour would argue, “We have been forced into it by this government’s incompetence.”
A referendum would split the Tories but, depending on the question, also divide Labour and its supporters.
Far better to demand a general election to get the Tories out and to point to the example of France where protests in December inflicted defeat on the Macron government.