Theresa May Clings to UK Premiership Amid Brexit Chaos

December 12, 2018 Updated: December 12, 2018

LONDON—UK Prime Minister Theresa May held on by a thread, surviving a leadership challenge fomented by the chaos of Brexit.

Rebels from her own party triggered a confidence vote on Dec. 12, as frustration at May’s divorce deal with the EU reached critical mass.

The vote on the night of Dec. 12 had a 50 percent threshold. In total, 117 of 317 lawmakers from the conservative party voted to kick her out in the secret ballot.

Those 117 rebel votes are a foretaste of the trouble that May could find in squeezing crucial Brexit legislation through lawmaking chambers, where she has a majority of 13, propped up by a small party from Northern Ireland.

Despite the damage to her authority, May has insisted she won’t resign. She acknowledged that a “significant number” of colleagues had voted against her.

Speaking after the results of the vote, May said, “We now need to get on with the job of delivering Brexit for the British people and building a better future for this country.”

According to party rules, May cannot face another confidence vote for a year.

For two years, May has struggled to hold together a party and a parliament driven apart by differences on Brexit, as she sought to hash out a deal with the EU.

The no-confidence vote was triggered after May yanked a crucial vote away from lawmakers that could have steered the nation down the path to a second referendum and a reversal of Brexit, or pushed it over the cliff into the “no-deal” Brexit scenario that has been spooking markets.

When they voted 52-48 to leave the EU in June 2016, the British people sparked divorce talks but left the UK wedded to the EU while the terms of the settlement were negotiated. That divorce settlement was wrapped up in November, and was due to be put to the British parliament.

A protester draped in a European Union flag outside the Houses of Parliament
A protester draped in a European Union flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London on March 13, 2017. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

May had intended the vote as a binary choice: her negotiated deal, or no deal. But lawmakers crowbarred in a third option to the vote, opening a confusing web of possibilities, including that of a second referendum and the possibility of overturning Brexit. Rebels in her party were ranged to shoot down the deal.

When May finally pulled the vote on Dec. 10, just one day before it was to occur, those rebels turned their sights on her leadership, sparking a confidence vote within the party.

A ‘Vassal State’ of the EU

EU leaders have shut the door on renegotiation, saying they were willing only to offer political assurances.

Many Brexit-supporting lawmakers can’t stomach the terms aimed to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland—the final sticking point in negotiations. They claim it will make the UK a “vassal state” of the EU.

If no bespoke deal is agreed upon, the EU and UK default to World Trade Organization trade rules on March 29, 2019. That no-deal Brexit is widely seen as the worst-case economic scenario and has spooked markets in recent months.

Political winds have been shifting behind a campaign for a second referendum, along with a change in public attitude over the last few months. Just 38 percent of people think that Britain was right to leave the EU in the latest survey, compared to 49 percent who think it was wrong.

Anti Brexit demonstrators union flags
Anti-Brexit demonstrators wave EU and Union flags opposite the Houses of Parliament in London on June 19, 2018. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

Earlier this week, an EU court ruled that the UK can reverse Brexit without the agreement of the EU member states, lighting the constitutional path for British lawmakers who want a second referendum.

Lighting the Path to Second Referendum

The ruling allows the UK to put the firing pin back in the Brexit grenade before it explodes on March 29, without losing its current bespoke arrangement with the EU.

The pound has risen and fallen with the roller coaster of Brexit negotiations over the past few months, with markets nervous of the prospect of a “no-deal” Brexit, looking for elusive certainty in a febrile political climate.

May, 62, has led the UK government since July 2016, taking the conservative leadership mantle from David Cameron, after he resigned the day that the Brexit referendum results were announced.

As she tried to chart a course for Brexit, May was constantly tripped by her own party divided on Brexit, haunted by the fact that she voted to remain in the EU and had no direct mandate for her particular vision of Brexit.

Seeing her numbers riding high in the polls, she called a snap election in June 2017, hoping to sweep up an iron-clad mandate for her vision of Brexit. That backfired, as her tiny majority in the lawmaking chambers was whittled down to almost nothing, leaving her to rely on votes from the DUP party to pass legislation.

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