LONDON – Conservative lawmakers in the U.K. voted on one question, but decided another. Their choice may not make the path for an orderly Brexit any easier, but it may make a disorderly Brexit a little less likely.
The ballot presented to 317 Tory members of Parliament on Wednesday night was straightforward: It asked them whether they had confidence in their party leader, Prime Minister Theresa May. The result — she prevailed by 200 votes to 117 — shows that many clearly don’t.
But if the verdict offers May little comfort personally, it shows that MPs understood the real question they were being asked was somewhat different. Were they willing to gamble on Britain exiting the European Union without a deal?
It is hard to see their answer as anything other than a vote of no confidence in the hard-line Brexiteers who have been pushing for months to replace May with a leader who would champion a no-deal Brexit. The result suggests the Tories want to hold the center ground, which is where May has belatedly sought to lead them.
Unfortunately, she has squandered much good faith along the way and now leads with diminished authority. There have been missteps, reversals and a disastrous election that complicated things for her party enormously by forcing it to rely on the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party for its majority.
But it speaks volumes that those failures weren’t enough to persuade the majority of her MPs to throw in their lot with the hard-line Brexiteers who had been threatening a no-confidence vote for months until they finally got the 48 letters necessary to trigger it this week. The only reason to cling to May now is that the alternative leadership is clearly a bigger risk. Her position as leader cannot now be challenged again from within her own party for 12 months.
What doomed the Brexiteers’ arguments against her leadership was the growing realization in recent months that they had no plan of their own. Their vague strategy to withhold some of the divorce payment, deny the problem of the Irish border, seek to reopen negotiations and hope that German carmakers make a fuss wasn’t just unconvincing; it was so ridiculous as to make transparent their real aim of leaving without a deal.
No deal is what happens when every other option has failed — it isn’t an outcome anyone runs toward with glee. Most Conservative MPs seemed to realize that on Wednesday. But fighting on all fronts has cost May more of her already much-diminished authority. She has now said she will not stay on to fight the next election, which will come as a relief to many in her party.
That leaves the all-important question of what Wednesday’s vote means for Brexit itself. And here little has changed: her party is divided and the fate of Brexit is undecided. There is still no parliamentary majority for Theresa May’s deal, which she will bring to a vote most likely in January, and no majority for holding a second referendum.
That means the hard-line Brexiteers haven’t lost entirely. The default, if Parliament doesn’t agree another course of action, is that Britain leaves the EU, deal or no deal, at the end of March.
May will continue to seek concessions from the EU that might make her deal more palatable to MPs, but there are plenty in Parliament who want to see her fail, either because they want no deal or because they want it to go to a second referendum or, as in the case of the opposition Labour Party, new elections. All her victory has proved is her deal has, possibly, 200 supporters — in a Parliament of 650. There now comes a three-way fight.
May acknowledged earlier in the day that the exit negotiations might have to be extended if a new leadership selection process was under way. It’s now more likely that she will need to request that the Article 50 timetable be extended to allow the U.K. more time to resolve Brexit; but that requires unanimous EU approval, something that would likely only be granted in the event of a referendum or general election.
The best that can be said is that Wednesday’s vote cleared the air and sent a message to one wing of the Conservative Party that their time has not come. That is a blow to the hard-line euroskeptics to whom May mistakenly pandered early on, but one should never underestimate their determination to fight on. A change of leader, MPs realized, would be little more than a distraction and another risk. Britain doesn’t need either right now.