May sets career deadline to quell rebellion
Crucial vote called amid warnings that Britain cannot afford instability
Theresa May fought a confidence vote in her Conservative leadership on Wednesday with a warning a race to find her replacement would put at risk the historic British attempt to quit the European Union in March.
Throwing down the gauntlet to those who would oppose her, the British prime minister said that with less than four months before the end date, Britain could not afford an election within the ruling party.
A confidence motion in Mrs May’s two-year prime ministership was triggered after more than 48 Conservative MPs wrote to the senior backbencher Sir Graham Brady demanding the opportunity to change leader. The prime minister came out fighting on Wednesday morning as markets digested the latest hammer blow to the prospect of an order British divorce from the world’s largest trading bloc.
More than 160 Conservative MPs publicly declared support for Mrs May during the day – more than the majority needed to win. In short statement in Downing St, she had stressed her long service of the party from local activist to her leader. The Conservatives banged desks as she entered the room for an address before the vote.
Sterling and the FTSE stock market benchmark rose amid hope the showdown would provide clarity in the power struggle.
In a key intervention, the prime minister’s spokesman also sought to reassure Conservatives that the vote would not determine who would lead the party into the next general election due in 2022. Waverers drew encouragement from the hint that Mrs May could leave after Brexit.
“This isn’t about who leads party into next election, it’s about whether it makes sense to change leader at this stage of the Brexit negotiations,” he said. "She believes it is her duty to serve as long as the party wants her to. She serves at the pleasure of the Conservative party.”
Senior colleagues hit out at the instability that a leadership election represented as a campaign to save the current leadership got underway. "I shall be supporting the prime minister this evening. This is no time for the self-indulgent spasm of a leadership election. Nothing fundamental will be altered by it," said attorney general Geoffrey Cox.
The language from senior figures also demonstrated the depths of divisions with Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, describing the challenges as extremists.
“I’m very clear that the prime minister will have the support of the great majority of parliamentary colleagues,” Mr Hammond said. “I think what this vote today will do is flush out the extremists who are trying to advance a particular agenda which would really not be in the interests of the British people or the British economy. Leaving the European Union without a deal would be bad for Britain.”
However a minister from the rival Brexit camp, Michael Gove defended both May and her opponents. “Ithink the prime minister will win tonight and she will win handsomely. I regret that a leadership contest has been triggered, but I respect my colleagues,” he said. “I know that everyone’s made their decision after careful thought.
“The one thing I would ask every Conservative MP to do is to ponder before they cast their vote this evening: If we don’t support the prime minister, then we risk derailing or diluting Brexit. If we do support the prime minister we can honour the mandate that the British people have given us.”
Political commentator Philip Blond told The National that the leadership election represented a push by hardliners to seize control amid the tensions of Brexit and wrest the Conservatives in a new direction.
“If Theresa May fails tonight to secure enough of a confidence vote to keep her in office, we will have a new prime minister and he or she will be a hard Brexiteer,” he said. “And then the Brexiteers from their point of view will have won control of the party and then we are heading in my view towards a managed no deal. Whatever that means.”
Newspapers reported that the bid to oust Mrs May was being coordinated from the office of Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader himself ousted by backbenchers in 2005. The City AM newspaper said a group of Brexiteers determined to end May’s leadership gathered in the plush office in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon to discuss tactics ahead of the no confidence vote.
European leaders have rebuffed requests to give signals of more concessions to Mrs May after she postponed a parliamentary vote on Brexit that was scheduled for Tuesday.
Once again, the fate of EU–UK relations, the prosperity of businesses and citizens' rights are consumed by an internal Conservative party catfight over Europe. I hope that, whatever happens, at least the vote will make clear that a disastrous no–deal is off the table,” declared Guy Verhofstadt, a leading member of the European parliament.
Mrs May cancelled a trip to Dublin on Wednesday for talks with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. She is still expected to attend an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday
While there was a carnival of opposing voices on the squares around Westminster, there was little sign that the British public back a drive to eject Mrs May, who has won sympathy for her persistence in seeking a Brexit resolution.
A poll released by the YouGov organisation found that 58 per cent of Conservative voters back Mrs May to remain as PM compared to 28 percent against and among the general public the margin thinking she should stay was 40 per cent to 34 per cent.
Updated: February 20, 2019 04:54 PM