It was foreseeable that yesterday’s press-conference announcement would spawn speculation that Theresa May might be stepping down. And who could have blamed her? Even in a premiership which has been plagued by problems from the very start, Thursday 15th November 2018 was probably among the Top-5 low points. After the resignation of several members of her cabinet and of a number of junior ministers during the morning, PM May had to field the questions of members of parliament for a full three hours. What is more, the verdict on the draft treaty which she has negotiated with Brussels was devastatingly negative right across the board. The biggest bone of contention, now as before, is the backstop, which many MPs regard as a kind of Trojan horse leading to a permanent customs union between the United Kingdom and the EU. At the same time, ill feeling is on the increase, not only in the ranks of Northern Ireland‘s DUP, that the province – which is to still be treated as part of the single market – could be left with a special status within the United Kingdom. Some commentators think that this could even jeopardise the survival of the Union. On the other side of the debate were those who see salvation from the current crisis in a second referendum. May has repeatedly felt the need to clarify her position on this score: parliament voted in favour of the referendum by an overwhelming majority, the people have expressed their will, and now it is up to the government to deliver. As though all this was not enough for one single day, Jacob Rees-Mogg took advantage of the long-drawn-out debate to meet in a backroom with like-minded hardliners, the upshot being that several Conservative MPs subsequently sent official letters of no confidence in Theresa May as party leader to the chairman of the 1922 Committee. However, it is still questionable at the moment whether the committee will receive the 48 letters from Tory MPs needed to trigger a vote of no confidence and, on an extreme scenario, the election of a new party leadership.
In the given circumstances, then, nobody could surely have held it against the prime minister if she had announced her resignation during the course of yesterday evening. Yet again, however, May proved her impressive staying power. Instead of caving in, she came out fighting and clearly countered speculations (hopes?) that she would leave without being pushed. Her message to parliament was also more than clear: where it was her task to negotiate the best possible deal with the EU, it was parliament’s duty to act “in the interests of the people” when voting on the draft agreement. This was a clear jibe at those who are currently more preoccupied with party politics than with the real job at hand. Prime Minister May’s tactic is a clever one: however much certain members of parliament got worked up yesterday, none of them was able to put forward a constructive alternative proposal capable of resolving the Irish border dilemma. If the conspirators do not succeed in removing May from office over the next few days, the British parliament will have to take a make-or-break decision by mid-December at the latest. Should there be a deal which, despite inevitable blemishes, at least promises an orderly exit, buying the British time for two years so that they can clarify the future configuration of trade relations with the EU? Or should there be a chaotic, disorderly “no deal“ exit with incalculable consequences? Surely not without ulterior motives, Ms. May repeatedly reminded MPs yesterday evening that they had to act in the best interests of the UK electorate: should they allow the country to sleepwalk into a no-deal Brexit – her subliminal message seemed to be hinting – parliamentarians would have to justify themselves to the people who had put them where they are.
So what is the way forward? First of all, it will have to become apparent whether Jacob Rees-Mogg manages to mobilise his supporters and get them to dispatch the necessary 48 letters. If he does, the first step would be for the Conservative Party to be called upon to vote. Were May to receive a simple majority (158 votes), she would be safe for at least the next twelve months; were she to lose the vote, a new leadership election would have to be called. In that context, the least popular candidate would be removed from the race twice a week until only two contenders were left standing. The ultimate decision would be taken by the party’s rank-and-file membership. How long this process lasted would depend on