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12 December 2018

Theresa May survives as Prime Minister – but the chances of a no-deal Brexit have gone up

Just seven Conservative MPs are sufficient to defeat the Prime Minister in the House of Commons. She lost 117.

By Stephen Bush

Victory? Theresa May has survived as leader of the Conservative Party and any close observer of her political style will know that any margin would have been enough for her to carry on. (Anyone who thinks this Prime Minister would be moved by anything without the force of legal statute hasn’t been paying attention to how she responds to dissent.)

What saved her was that Conservative MPs in the middle of the party, despite their irritation with her, for the most part looked over the cliff, and realised that while many of their present problems can be laid squarely at the door of Theresa May, they can’t be fixed by getting rid of her and many of those problems will simply get worse. One of their number, who only yesterday was spitting blood about the Prime Minister, put it to me like this: “It’s keep the pilot who crashed the plane or hand the keys to the people who want to set the plane on fire.”

While she pledged to Conservative MPs that she would not lead them into the 2022 election, May has said nothing about a 2019, 2020 or 2021 election, and in any case, she once promised nervous MPs in marginal seats that she would not risk their jobs on a snap election – and look what happened there. It’s not unthinkable that May could yet lead the Tory party into another election.

The bigger blow is not to her authority as Conservative party leader but to her hopes of passing the withdrawal agreement into law. Just seven Conservative MPs are needed to overcome the combined Conservative-DUP majority: 117 MPs have voted no confidence in her (and given that the government has no policy agenda other than Brexit, beyond “occasionally set up a commission”, it is hard to read that as anything other than Brexit-related).

That means that May cannot pass any Brexit deal without substantial support from the opposition, and to put the scale of the task into perspective: while 117 Conservative MPs voted against her today, only 100 Labour MPs in total have rebelled against Jeremy Corbyn over Brexit. That includes MPs who did so because they feared a Liberal Democrat revival (not something one regularly hears from Labour MPs since the 2017 election) and 25 MPs who have done so to harden Brexit, who are unlikely to bail out May’s deal.

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To pass a Brexit deal, Britain is going to need a Prime Minister capable of reaching out to other parties, showing considerable flexibility over policy and with the softness of touch to facilitate a cross-party vote in favour of a Brexit deal. Theresa May has done very little so far to indicate she is that Prime Minister. The United Kingdom’s ability to avoid a no-deal exit now depends on her discovering those skills before 29 March 2019.