Prime Minister Theresa May survived a confidence vote by the Conservative Party on Wednesday, but a mutiny by more than a third of her lawmakers indicated parliament was heading towards deadlock over Brexit.
While 200 Conservative lawmakers voted in support of May as leader, 117 dissented, indicating opposition not only from several dozen supporters of a hard Brexit but also from many more pragmatic lawmakers – and signalling that she was no nearer to passing her EU divorce agreement.
May will be in Brussels today (13 December) to ask the other 27 EU leaders, who have made room for her at a summit, for clarification of the deal to reassure the doubters.
On Monday, she had cancelled a parliamentary vote on her deal, struck after two years of negotiations and designed to maintain close future ties with the bloc, after admitting it would be heavily defeated.
With Britain due to leave the EU on March 29, parliament’s opposition has suddenly opened up possibilities including a potentially disorderly exit with no deal or even another referendum on membership.
Speaking in Downing Street after the vote, May said she would listen to those who had voted against her and seek legal assurances on the most controversial part of her deal – an insurance policy to prevent a hard border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland. Many in her party fear that these “backstop” measures could last indefinitely.
“A significant number of colleagues did cast a vote against me and I’ve listened to what they said,” May said. “We now have to get on with the job of delivering Brexit for the British people.”
Supporters said the result showed the party should now get behind her. But the eurosceptics who see her deal as a betrayal of the 2016 referendum said she should now quit.
“It is a terrible result for the prime minister,” Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of a hard Brexit faction, told BBC. “The prime minister must realise that, under all constitutional norms, she ought to go and see the queen urgently and resign.”
May, who voted to remain in the EU in the referendum, had warned opponents of her withdrawal deal that if they toppled her, Brexit would be delayed or stopped.
Shortly before the vote, May sought to win over wavering lawmakers by promising to step down before the 2022 election. But the confidence vote was also a proxy for the party’s divisions over Europe.
The Democratic Unionist Party that props up her government – and strongly opposes her withdrawal deal – said the fundamental arithmetic in parliament was unchanged. The opposition Labour Party said she must now bring the agreement back to parliament.