Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 16 November 2019

The nightmare will deepen, irrespective of the vote on Theresa May's leadership

The British prime minister still has to win the delayed vote in the Commons on her Brexit deal – and even then, her problems will have only just begun

A beleaguered Theresa May at Prime Minister's Questions today in the House of Commons. Parliament TV handout via Reuters
A beleaguered Theresa May at Prime Minister's Questions today in the House of Commons. Parliament TV handout via Reuters

British politics has become so febrile that it is impossible to turn away for more than a second without missing another twist. The latest dramatic development is that Conservative MPs have triggered a vote of confidence in Prime Minister Theresa May. The move is vividly dramatic, showing in tangible form what we already knew to be the case. Some of Mrs May’s MPs want her out as prime minister now. There are plenty of ambitious figures hoping to succeed her.

Yet this epic, nerve-shredding vote is a sideshow. Even if it leads to a change of prime minister or further weakens Mrs May, all the explosive ingredients that make British politics so combustible will still be in place. The most immediate reason for the combustibility is that the government is seeking to navigate Brexit in a hung parliament. Navigation would have been extremely hazardous if Mrs May had presided over a landslide majority. In a hung parliament, the Brexit route is blocked. There is no majority for any option as matters stand. A leadership contest in the Conservative party will not change the composition of the Commons. Any new leader would face precisely the same problem.

Mrs May had to pull the vote on her Brexit deal because she knew she was going to lose. Assuming she survives her party’s vote of confidence, her attempt to renegotiate elements of the Brexit deal are already doomed. The EU has made clear there will be no renegotiation of significance. But if a more hardline Brexiteer were to replace her as prime minister, he or she would not secure a majority for a harder version of Brexit or "no deal" with the EU. This is the biggest issue in British politics. There is parliamentary paralysis in relation to Brexit. Any Conservative prime minister would struggle in that unchanging context.

But the sideshow of the vote on Mrs May’s leadership does matter for a much deeper reason. The issue of Europe continues to wreak havoc in the Conservative party. The highly charged policy area has brought down three successive Conservative prime ministers – Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron. Europe is now making May’s leadership a form of hell too. The nightmare will deepen, irrespective of the internal vote on her leadership. She still has to win the delayed vote in the Commons on her Brexit deal. Even if she wins that vote, her problems have only just begun. Her deal only relates to the withdrawal agreement, the relatively easy phase of the negotiation. The thornier task of negotiating the future trade relationship with the EU has still to begin – if it ever begins. There is still a possibility that Brexit might not happen.

Since the late 1980s, the Conservatives have been obsessed by Europe and divided over it. Until the divisions can be resolved, more Conservative leaders in the future will face confidence votes and their lives will be as hellish as Mrs May’s. Labour is also divided over Europe but it is easier to be split from the comfort of opposition. Expect Mrs May to struggle on, but she faces many bigger Brexit-related challenges to come. Do not turn away for a second. There will be many more twists.

Steve Richards is a political commentator and BBC presenter. His latest book Lessons of Leadership- Modern Prime Ministers from Wilson to May is published next year

Updated: December 12, 2018 06:37 PM

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