How Theresa May won the confidence vote but lost the country
So British Prime Minister Theresa May survives to fight another day. The no-confidence vote by her own Conservative Party, called at the instigation of backbench Brexiteers, failed: She received the votes of 200 out of 317 Tory members of Parliament, enough to eke it out as the head of government.
The vote is being touted as a victory by May's ministers — she prevailed, after all, winning one vote more than she did when she contested for the leadership in 2016 in the wake of the Brexit referendum. But it is hard to give much credit to that spin. Members of May's government are obliged to support her or resign, after all.
But more importantly, the reason her leadership was being contested at all was down to her decision not to bring her negotiated Brexit deal to a vote in Parliament this week, a move she made because she knew she didn't have the votes for it to pass. It seems many members in Parliament — even those who aren't entirely against the Brexit deal she's negotiated with the EU — do not believe she's capable of getting that deal, or any deal, across the finish line.
But while it's hard to call the vote a victory for May, it's not clear that it's a victory for anybody else, either.
Consider the Conservative members of Parliament who led the campaign against her: From their perspective, the deal she negotiated with the EU is a parody of their ideal Brexit, giving Britain far too little of its sovereignty back. And they have a point: The most disputed provision is the "backstop," which would ensure there would never be a hard border between Ireland (which is part of the EU) and Northern Ireland (which remains part of the U.K.). The backstop would mean that all of Britain would remain subject to EU regulations — and therefore be unable to make new trade agreements on a bilateral basis — until an arrangement is worked out that permits an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Britain exits the common market. As Brexiteers see it, remaining subject to those regulations without having any say in their drafting is not a restoration of sovereignty but its further surrender.
The sticking point, though, is that the Brexiteers have no alternative proposal, because none is logically possible. If Britain leaves the EU without any deal, there will be a hard border in Ireland. If Northern Ireland alone among the component countries of the U.K. continues to abide by EU rules, while the rest of Great Britain departs, then Britain will have formally separated Northern Ireland from the rest of the union, which is totally unacceptable to the Democratic Unionist Party upon which May's minority Tory government depends.
This circle can't be squared.
Of course, the most staunch Brexit proponents might not want to square it at all. Their view might be that no deal — a so-called "hard Brexit" — and the ensuing chaos, would be better than a bad deal. The chaos would be short-lived, after all, and the longer-term consequences — the shrinking of the financial sector, for example — were, while very painful, arguably part of the point. Even upsetting the applecart in Northern Ireland might be worth it.
But there is manifestly no parliamentary majority for a hard Brexit. Even Euroskeptic Labourites don't want that.
If, in fact, the House of Commons rejects the Brexit compromise negotiated by the government, May will surely have to resign. But before she does, she'd just as surely ask Parliament to vote for Brexit to be postponed indefinitely — as the European Court of Justice recently ruled member countries have the right to do — so that new negotiations to leave could be undertaken by the new government. And there would be little reason for Labour MPs not to support such a vote — it would mean voting for the Conservative Party's effective self-destruction.
The only way in which the Brexiteers can be said to have come out ahead is if their goal isn't to achieve a policy victory at all. Whether May somehow manages to pass her compromise Brexit deal with Labour votes (which is highly unlikely), or manages to get agreement on the so-called "Norway option" of remaining entirely within the Common Market but with no voting say in its rules, or has to admit defeat and postpone Brexit for a subsequent government to negotiate, the Brexiteer's fingerprints won't be anywhere on the result. That means they'll be able to tell everyone who is unhappy with said result that they were against it all along, and then tout the "better" plan they purportedly had up their sleeves the whole time. And they won't even have to topple May before the next election, as she has already promised not to stand as leader in the next election, regardless of how her Brexit compromise fares.
That may sound appallingly cynical. But it may not be foolish. After all, the union that Britain is agonizing over leaving has been looking pretty shaky itself these days. Euroskeptic parties are on the rise across the continent, and sit in power in Italy, while one of Europe's strongest champions, President Emmanuel Macron of France, has crumpled in the face of wide-spread protest. If the Brexiteers are lucky, by the time Britain's next prime minister gets around to negotiating the new terms of Britain's relationship with the EU, the EU might itself have exited.