As predicted by most, May won the no confidence vote last night comfortably, 200-117. Rees-Mogg was in there almost instantly trying to paint it as a loss for the prime minister, but it wasn’t. There is some talk about her authority being weakened: it was dealt a massive blow with the 2017 general election result and was finished last week when she had to pull a vote on something she has spent her entire premiership working on because she was facing a triple-digit loss. She can’t have less authority than she did pre-confidence vote because it was already at a point lower than any prime minister who had then carried on has ever experienced.
What happens now? May stays in Number 10 for as long as she needs to resolve the Brexit issue, so long as that doesn’t bleed into 2021. Since the momentous events of the last week, and particularly after last night, the choices have narrowed.
One possibility I have to get out of the way is that Theresa May manages to extract some sort of fig leaf from the EU Commission that allows enough of her MPs to support her deal. This is monumentally unlikely – I’d rate an asteroid wiping out all mammalian life within the next fortnight a much great possibility. One, the EU aren’t likely to give her anything substantial (and I doubt she’s really trying on that front now anyhow) and even if by some miracle they did, most of the 117 Tory MPs who voted against her wouldn’t budge anyhow no matter what. This has become a standoff; things have become personal. May has to look at 117 of her own MPs as being lost to her in regard to her Brexit deal.
If she wants to get her deal through, she has to figure out how she gets 125 votes from outside of her own party (and the DUP). The confidence vote last night helped her in this enormously; whereas before she would have been nervous about courting Labour MPs too obviously for fear of reaction within the Tory camp, now she doesn’t need to worry. She’s very, very likely finished after all of this and her deal is all she has left. May is now free use any means necessary. One can say that this will cause huge damage to her party, but by clinging on in the face of the discontent that exists, she’s doing that already. That bird has flown.
The ways that are available to get these 125 votes from the opposition benches are very slim. In fact, I think it’s down to only one possibility: a second referendum. Corbyn will be determined to vote against the vote no matter what. He or whoever it is around him has designed the six tests as to be impossible to pass. Same access to the single market and customs union without being in either – this is impossible and Corbyn knows it. The only way to get Labour votes then is to appeal to the Chuka Ummuna group who don’t like Corbyn anyhow and who want to Remain. The offer of a referendum is the only thing that I think has any chance of getting enough of these MPs on board, and you could almost certainly get the Lib Dems and the SNP along if you had the Labour numbers and then she might have just enough votes.
May might instead try and run out the clock, avoid the referendum question for as long as possible and hope everyone budges. If she tries this, it won’t work. Then we’re left with the only thing left to her: revoke Article 50. That would be hugely embarrassing for the country and for the Conservative party. It might be where we end up.