At times of crisis, even a day is a long time in politics. It will certainly seem long to Theresa May, as the embattled Prime Minister faces a vote on her leadership tonight, after (at least) 48 Conservative MPs submitted letters of no confidence to Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee.
Previous days, weeks and months have brought plenty of reasons to suppose that she possesses only a whisper of her former authority as PM. During her tenure, she’s called an unnecessary snap election (that spectacularly backfired), has seen her government found in contempt of Parliament for refusing to publish legal advice, and has most recently weaselled out of a vote on the (unpopular) EU withdrawal agreement her government negotiated.
However, while there is a case to be made that she’s no longer the best person to lead the world’s sixth biggest economy, the vote of no confidence in her hasn’t really been triggered to get rid of an increasingly weak and discredited Prime Minister. Spearheaded mostly by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and other hardline Brexiteers, it has been triggered because it’s becoming increasingly clear to them that there’s a majority in Parliament only for a soft Brexit, or for no Brexit at all.
Of the 27 MPs known to have submitted a letter of no confidence, 23 are members of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, which has consistently urged Theresa May to push for a hard Brexit ever since she became PM. They want the UK to leave the single market and the customs union, which was why their members were at the forefront of criticism of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement when it was debated in Parliament.
Unfortunately for the ERG, even if it can count around 70 MPs as members, it isn’t in the majority in Parliament. Its most prominent spokespeople (e.g. Jacob Rees-Mogg and Andrea Leadsom) deem a ‘managed’ no-deal Brexit as preferable to the one mapped out by May’s agreement, but it’s evident that more than half of the MPs sitting in Parliament would prefer something even softer than May’s deal (especially when compared to a no deal).
Indeed, 73% of MPs voted remain in the 2016 referendum, and for many of the MPs who spoke out against the withdrawal agreement last week, their issue with it wasn’t that it was ‘too soft’, but that it essentially wasn’t soft enough.
Among the various critics to speak out in Parliament, Labour MP Yvette Cooper complained that the UK wouldn’t have access to ECRIS and SIS II (two European security databases) under the agreement; Conservative MP (and former universities minister) Sam Gyimah argued that the withdrawal agreement offered too little in exchange for the UK giving “up our vote, our veto and our voice” in the EU; and the Conservative’s Justine Greening declared that, because it lacked sufficient detail on the future UK-EU relationship, it was “the political equivalent of being asked to jump out of a plane without knowing if your parachute is there and attached.”
At the same time, there was widespread criticism among MPs of the Northern Ireland backstop, which would see Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom and which former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said “compromises the integrity of our country.”
The backstop – which would have Northern Ireland remain part of the single market – was perhaps the most pointed of all the issues thrown up by the withdrawal agreement, and it was for this reason more than any other that Theresa May controversially opted to cancel the vote on the agreement planned for yesterday.
However, because a clear majority of MPs would prefer a softer form of Brexit in which the UK remains more integrated with the EU, it has become apparent that the only way for May to avoid a Commons defeat in any future vote is for her to soften her agreement, rather than harden it. And when it comes to avoiding the thorny problem of the Northern Ireland backstop, it has become no less apparent that the best way of avoiding it – and the one most likely to be approved by a majority in Parliament – is for the UK to remain in the single market and customs union.
And at a time when even some ‘diehard’ Leave voters are reportedly becoming disenchanted with Brexit – and when Theresa May has gone back to EU leaders to seek concessions (which could only ever be granted in return for further concessions from the UK) – this development has forced the ERG and other Brexiteers to act now while they still have a chance.
This is why the vote of no confidence has been triggered. By ousting Theresa May, the members of the ERG hope they can install one of their own as Prime Minister, and then use the authority he or she gains to push through a harder Brexit, even if recent weeks and months have shown that House of Commons is now veering ever-closer to a soft Brexit.
But by launching such an attempt and under such circumstances, Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg aren’t really attempting to depose a weak and ineffective PM. No, what they’re really trying to do is subvert the will of Parliament.
Of course, members of the ERG would counter-argue that Parliament, by going for a softer Brexit, is trying to subvert the will of the British people, who voted on June 23, 2016 to leave the EU. However, there was no clear declaration as to what kind of Brexit the British electorate wanted, and given that we do have elected representatives (i.e. MPs), it’s the right and responsibility of these representatives to complete the UK’s exit according to what they perceive as in our best interests.
There is, therefore, a very strong sense that the instigators of the vote of no confidence have simply launched a last-gasp attempt to sway Brexit in their favour, before it becomes even more obvious that a soft Brexit is the only politically viable option that doesn’t create issues for Northern Ireland. They’ve seen that there’s an increasingly weaker appetite in the House of Commons for a no-deal or hard Brexit, and so they’ve acted now, before their window of opportunity closes completely.