One of Theresa May’s surprise talents as Prime Minister has been her ability to survive almost perpetual political crisis. Time and again we have seen pundits and politicians predict that she will be out the door within weeks, and yet, two years later, she’s still there.
After the latest EU Summit in Brussels passed without much progress being made, it seemed like this might finally be it for May. Not only had she failed to progress talks beyond the deadlock on the Irish border, she had also indicated that the UK would be willing to extend the transition period. The combination of these two announcements provoked outrage across the political spectrum, making May’s position uncertain once again. Against the backdrop of the march advocating for a second referendum, which was attended by an estimated 700,000 people, Brexiteers spent the weekend briefing against the Prime Minister, seemingly preparing for an imminent vote of no confidence.
High profile Brexiteers have continued to put pressure on May, arguing that her decision to propose an extension to the transition period amounts to a betrayal of the Brexit vote. Boris Johnson, never one to shy away from making such a suggestion, described the move as “a cheat and a fraud on those who voted leave” and announced he had joined Stand Up 4 Brexit, a group of 44 MPs campaigning for a “clean break” from the EU, including David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel. Steve Baker, the man credited with orchestrating the strategy of the pro hard Brexit faction of MP’s, also seemed to be launching an attack on May, tabling an amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill that would require the Northern Irish Assembly to give approval to any Brexit deal that would treat Northern Ireland differently from the UK.
And yet, the Prime Minister seems to have pulled it off yet again. While on Monday morning, momentum seemed to be building against May, with threats not only of a no-confidence vote, alongside Brexiteers, and the DUP planning to begin to vote against government Bills as a means of undermining the Prime Minister. the threat later appeared to melt away. Baker withdrew his amendment, apparently overestimating the support he could expect to have on the day. Outrage over the violent imagery used by anonymous MPs against the Prime Minister united the majority of Parliament in sympathy for the Prime Minister. All this allowed her to deliver an update on negotiations to the House of Commons relatively unscathed.
How long May can keep this up remains to be seen. The 1922 Committee meet on Wednesday, always a risk for the Prime Minister, with an estimated 40 of the required 48 letters of no confidence submitted to Committee Chair Sir Graham Brady. Fears that the Prime Minister may resort to a softer Brexit over a no-deal may push yet more MPs to submit letters of no confidence in an attempt to trigger a leadership contest. It remains highly unlikely that there are enough Conservatives willing to vote against the Prime Minister to force her out, but there are other options available to those willing to undermine her yet further. Rumours that Brexiteers are planning to deliberately derail Bills as a show of strength have yet to materialise, but clearly have the government worried. The Offensive Weapons Bill, a rumoured target of Brexiteers, has been pulled from the parliamentary agenda for two weeks running.
Theresa May is the great survivor of British politics, but with her own MPs becoming increasingly disruptive as Brexit talks grow in urgency, her future in office looks increasingly uncertain. With the Budget less than a week away, she needs to maintain at least public unity among her backbenchers, while ensuring the continuation of the confidence and supply deal with the DUP. The Prime Minister may be in a less precarious position than she was at the weekend, but it is doubtful that speculation on the future of May’s position is over.