Another day of Brexit drama ends, and Theresa May is still more-or-less Prime Minister of the more-or-less United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. On Wednesday, she survived a vote of no confidence in her government by a narrow majority of 19.
At a glance, this might surprise those who have been following the tempestuous melodrama that has befallen the UK since it voted to leave the European Union in 2016. How, in spite of this bedlam, has May managed to hold onto her job?
It’s a good question and one which has a few answers.
Politically, the UK is in an odd spot. May has no parliamentary majority, but she and her government formally command the confidence of both the House of Commons and her own lawmakers (you’ll remember in December she survived a leadership challenge brought by rebels from her own party).
Yet they have rejected her Brexit plan. She suffered a bruising defeat in the Commons on Tuesday night, 432 votes to 202. Of that 432, 118 of her own Conservative MPs voted against her.
Under normal circumstances, a Prime Minister under such fire from members of her own party would have to go.
But nothing is normal in Brexit-era Britain. The UK is suffering a near-debilitating case of Brexit Paralysis. Every attempt to pass legislation is an uphill struggle for the government because of the rumbling of Brexit in the background.
As May said after losing the vote on her deal Tuesday, Parliament indicated what it is against but left us all guessing as to what it could agree on. For conservatives, sick of zombie governance, a new leader might be an exciting prospect. But the reality is that any new leader and their supporters would have to step up and provide a plan that can make it through Parliament.
And it has long been true that there is no credible alternative to May – or her Brexit plan.
“A bizarre balance of forces has meant that for all the various factions, her remaining in place has more often than not been the least bad option for everyone,” James Kirkup, director of the Social Market Foundation think tank, told me.
This was the case when her own party challenged her leadership. However much they disliked May, the other options were deemed to be much worse.
This same avoidance of a worse option is the chief reason that her party swung behind her in Wednesday’s Commons confidence vote. Only in this instance, it is someone else whose leadership presented a greater concern.
Conservatives are terrified at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition Labour Party winning an election and forming a government. Corbyn, a long-standing hard-left parliamentarian, is anathema to conservatives. He wants to nationalize public services and introduce a form of socialism that they believe would drag the country backwards.
Also scared of a Labour government are the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist party, whose 10 MPs prop up May in Parliament. They rebelled on the Brexit vote on Tuesday but backed the PM on Wednesday. The DUP have not forgotten Corbyn’s refusal to single out the IRA – the Irish republican paramilitaries who ran a campaign of terror during Northern Ireland’s troubles – for condemnation.
For their part, the Labour Party currently has a single objective: to force a general election and take power from the Conservatives. Even in the face of huge pressure from his supporters and pro-European Union MPs, Corbyn has consistently resisted calls to back a second referendum. There is a simple reason for this: right now, he doesn’t see it as a vote winner.
A source familiar with Corbyn’s thinking told me, “there is no evidence a clear majority of the public support for a second referendum or that a large number of people have changed their mind since 2016. That’s before it is even known whether or not this policy would help achieve a Labour government or instead undermine achieving one by turning away voters Labour needs to win a general election.”
In practice, this means that Labour is reluctant to move until it is certain that it could win a general election. This has created a perfect stalemate: a government that cannot govern and an opposition that cannot oppose.
So for the time being, it’s not obvious what the next step is. May has to present a Plan B to Parliament before the end of the week in the coming days. It seems likely that will mean reaching across the divide and appealing to people in both the Labour Party and the DUP who might be able to knock their heads together and find a majority for something that May can take to the EU.
Meanwhile in Brussels, the EU’s negotiators are shifting their expectation to the UK moving towards something much softer than May’s deal. An EU source familiar with the talks told me on Tuesday night that “the expectation here is that the UK will move” to potentially accepting membership of the single market and some sort of customs union with the EU, along with all the obligations that accompany them. Curiously, this is a question May refused to answer in the commons on Wednesday.
So on we stumble. Unless the people who make the UK’s laws can get a little more creative, this stalemate will continue. And if the government doesn’t revoke or request an extension of article 50, then on March 29, the UK leaves with no deal. It really is that simple.