As the carol goes, the twelfth day of Christmas is usually associated with the sound of drummers drumming.
However, in this extraordinarily chaotic year, it is no surprise to learn that the drummers were replaced by relieved Conservative MPs, banging desks in relief as Theresa May faced down a vote of no confidence in her leadership. The Prime Minister remains in office, but is she in power?
A vote of confidence in Theresa May’s leadership became almost inevitable after she decided to pull Tuesday’s meaningful vote at the eleventh hour. The fact that Ministers were on the airwaves only hours earlier, confidently proclaiming the vote would go ahead, only added to the sense of betrayal felt by many Conservative MPs. In their view, the Prime Minister’s deal betrayed Brexit and now she was denying them their chance to throw it (and maybe her) out.
The quick turnaround of the vote of no confidence certainly played to the Prime Minister’s advantage. After the shambolic attempt by the European Research Group a few weeks ago to oust May, they clearly needed time to corral sufficient support. In the end, time was against them. The 200-117 victory in favour of the Prime Minister means that a vote of confidence cannot be called in her leadership for at least a year, securing her position in the party. However, 117 rebellious MPs is sizeable, and should Cabinet ministers decide to resign en masse over the coming weeks, her position could become untenable. For the Conservative Brexiteers, they end the week the way it began: with a Prime Minister and deal they cannot support.
While the Conservatives have been tearing themselves apart, Labour has surprisingly, sat by watching the drama unfold. The scale of Conservative opposition to Theresa May’s leadership would naturally lead you to believe that it is only a matter of time before Labour tables a vote of no confidence in the government. However, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to be certain that he can defeat the government. While it is festive season, it remains to be seen whether Turkeys would actually vote for Christmas (Conservative MPs voting against the government in a vote of no confidence). It may also be the case that Corbyn is also unsure of what exactly his next move should be. Those in his party that are pleading for a vote of no confidence are mainly advocates of a second referendum (Chuka Umunna, Margaret Beckett). While the People’s Vote campaign has certainly picked up momentum in recent weeks, the only hope of ever having one is if Labour can get behind it. As Jeremy Corbyn plots his next move, it remains to be seen whether he will give the Remainers inside and outside of his party what they want.
With enemies on all sides demanding different things from Brexit, what next for Theresa May?
Overnight, her position became all the more precarious as EU leaders united to reject renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement. May’s plan had been to secure concessions from Brussels, mainly around the Northern Irish backstop. The Prime Minister’s plan was to secure a target for a UK-EU trade deal by the end of 2021, thereby ensuring the backstop contained a time limit. Yet the backstop is fundamental to the Agreement for the EU, and the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, while happy to offer assurances, will not budge on something that he believes is a fundamental assurance to maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. Despite this, it is still likely that May will secure some form of assurances regarding the backstop, which she will then take back to her Tory Brexiteers and the DUP ahead of a meaningful vote, pencilled in for January 14th. As Parliament stares into the abyss of a no-deal, it is impossible to predict whether political opponents on all sides of the House of Commons will support the Prime Minister’s deal.
Arguably, the most admirable quality about the Prime Minister is that she can often kick issues into the long grass, when defeat seems inevitable. However, with March fast approaching, that grass is running out and attention quickly turns to whether she can command the support of MPs from all sides to pass her deal. If she does, this is only the start of the many painful battles that lie ahead. As we look ahead to the New Year, deal or no deal, Parliament is certain to play a fundamental role in determining our future relationship with the EU.