So it’s come to this: put up or shut up.
Conservative Party lawmakers have decided to keep Theresa May in office after a vote of no confidence was triggered by (at least) 15% of her own MPs.
It might have cost her offering her own head – to placate her rebels, she has agreed she will not lead her party into the next general election, currently slated for 2022. But this victory (and it is a victory) protects her from another leadership challenge for 12 months. This means that unless something dramatic happens – and that can’t be ruled out – May is all but certain to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on March 29, 2019, the day on which the country is formally scheduled to leave the European Union.
Having had to delay the House of Commons vote on her deal with the EU earlier this week, amid predictions of a heavy defeat, this leaves Brexit in a strange position.
May’s deal had insufficient support of many of her own MPs for wide-ranging reasons, but mainly because of the Irish border backstop keeping the UK temporarily in a customs union to avoid a hard border with the Republic. These lawmakers say that without significant changes or a total scrapping of the backstop, they cannot vote with the government.
Without the support of her MPs – or of MPs from other parties sympathetic to her deal – the PM was stuck between a rock and a hard place: an EU unwilling to reopen negotiations on the deal and a House of Commons unwilling to accept that agreement with the EU.
Crude maths suggest that even if we recalculate the numbers based on Wednesday night’s vote, she still doesn’t have the support to take her deal through the Commons.
And that’s before we even start thinking about the prospect of a motion of no confidence in her government in the House of Commons, which could be put forward by the opposition Labour Party.
So we come back to put up or shut up. Conservative rebels have tried to remove her through the formal process. If they continue to resist May and vote against her in the Commons, it seems inconceivable that she can carry on governing. Then, the prospect of the UK stumbling into a no-deal Brexit looks more likely than ever.
That could mean, according to several analysts, food shortages, grounded flights, people being left without medicine and catastrophic economic fluctuations.
This is the hand that May must now play with her backbenchers. However much they hate her deal, it at least guarantees the economy will not fall off a cliff and that life in the UK can go on as is for the foreseeable future while the UK and EU work out what comes next.
The rebels will continue to argue that May needs to press the EU harder, as it’s just as important to Brussels that this doesn’t end in disaster as it is to the UK. And she gets her chance to do exactly this on Thursday, as she travels to Brussels for a summit with the assorted leaders of EU governments.
So goes their argument, May can at this point say unequivocally to the EU that their deal is simply not one that will pass in parliament, so now is the time to reopen negotiations. If they refuse, the UK will simply walk away, taking with it the trade surplus the EU enjoys with the UK and the £39 billion ($49 billion) divorce settlement that the EU sorely needs to plug the gaps in its budget.
Both arguments are compelling – if terrifying – and it remains to be seen if either side is willing to blink.
Right now, nothing is certain, other than the fact that the Brexit headache will not end for a very long time. Let’s hope we have enough painkillers to get through it.