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13 December 2018

This could be a moment of great strength for Theresa May. But yet again, it’s not

The PM won the confidence vote not by setting out the case for her withdrawal agreement, but by vowing to sand off its edges.

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May has won the vote of confidence in her leadership, with 200 Conservative MPs voting that they have confidence in her, against 117 who voted against her. Victory came at the cost of pledging that she will not lead the Conservative Party into the 2022 election (though that doesn’t mean that she won’t lead them into the elections of February and April 2019, of course) but she now cannot be dislodged as Tory party leader until 12 December 2019.

Tony Blair writes in his memoir The Journey that John Major’s great mistake when he saw off John Redwood’s challenge in 1995 was that “he appealed for unity rather than mandate”. Now Theresa May seems to be going down the same road.

May didn’t see off the threat to her leadership by setting out the case for the withdrawal agreement but by promising to sand off the edges that Conservative MPs and the DUP dislike, by warning that the alternative to sticking with her was a Brexit shaped by opposition MPs and opposing the idea of extending Article 50, let alone throwing the Brexit question back to the public as a whole.

There’s just a teeny tiny problem here: the things about the withdrawal agreement that Conservative MPs and the DUP don’t like are here to stay, the only way to pass a Brexit deal through the Commons is for opposition MPs to shape it, and if the United Kingdom is going to avoid leaving without a deal we will probably have to seek an extension to Article 50.

This could be a moment of great strength for May, when she could use her immunity to challenge to reach out to the opposition parties and to be candid about what trade-offs that involved. She has declined the opportunity to do so yet again, and the prospects for avoiding a no-deal exit now rest solely on the shoulders of a politician who feels almost laboratory-designed to be ill-suited to that task.

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