A day after the crushing defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan, members of Parliament took up a no-confidence motion, insulting and disparaging her for hours and hours on Wednesday.
Yet she survived, by a vote of 325-306.
Normally, a British prime minister who a day earlier had lost a vote on her top legislation by such a margin – 432-202, the worst parliamentary loss in a century – might be expected to resign or be swept away. But these are not normal times.
Brexit is tearing British society and its political classes apart, as the sides devolve into warring tribes of Leavers and Remainers, neither with enough power to best the other.
“I think it’s astonishing she is carrying on as prime minister,” said Jonathan Tonge, a politics professor at the University of Liverpool. “Not just because of the size of the defeat, but also because she told us that this was the ‘best and only deal.’ So, by definition, any course she pursues now is an inferior course.”
Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, said May is still standing, in part, because no one else in her party wants to take over at the Brexit helm.
“Who else is there? Who wants to take on this role?” Bale said. “No hard Brexiteer wants to, because they know, in their heart of hearts, it can’t be done and they don’t want to be blamed for it. And anyone else would have to come from a soft Brexit perspective and would end up splitting the party.”
Although a third of May’s Conservative Party members voted against her 585-page withdrawal agreement, negotiated with European leaders over two years, and even though her party challenged her leadership in a confidence vote just last month, Conservatives supported her Wednesday. Besides not having an obvious leader waiting in the wings, the Tories do not want a general election against the opposition Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, who called for the no-confidence vote.
She will have until Monday to return to Parliament and present her Plan B.
Still, the political theater of the no-confidence debate Wednesday, which began at midday and ended with a vote in the early evening, produced a withering day of rhetoric against May and her Brexit plan.
Corbyn set the tone for the debate when he said that May was running “a zombie government,” raising the specter of the undead prime minister repeating over and over again that “Brexit means Brexit” while devouring the brains of her party.
“Brexit is like a black hole that devours all light,” Labour’s Angela Eagle said.
Phillip Lee, a Conservative Party member who resigned as a minister because he opposed May’s deal, asked the prime minister whether she accepts that she may now have to change her mind about her approach to Brexit.
May did not say yes, but she did not say no.
Eagle said May is offering nothing new – just repeating the stock phrases she has been using for months.
Stewart McDonald of the Scottish National Party asked May which of her red lines she is willing to give up.
The prime minister was asked repeatedly what she will do to improve her deal and win support from the divided Parliament.
May replied that she will now consult with “parliamentarians across this House” to craft a better plan.
But which members of Parliament?
Sir Vince Cable, the leader of the Liberal Democrats party, applauded May’s offer of cross-party talks. But he warned the prime minister she should not “even lift up the phone” unless she is willing to rule out a no-deal Brexit, which she has not done.
Cable also said he wanted to have a “constructive conversation” about the possibility of a second referendum on Brexit, a “people’s vote,” which he endorses. May said again Wednesday that she would not support a second vote.
Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, told the BBC that she spoke with May after the defeat of her Brexit bill. Sturgeon said, “To be perfectly frank, I didn’t glean very much – she was at pains to tell me she wanted to sit down with other parties and listen to other ideas. But I got the very strong sense she does not have a clear idea herself of what the next steps are, and it doesn’t seem to me as if she is prepared to abandon or move any of her red lines to open space for new approaches to be brought forward.”
Sturgeon added, “It sounded like what she wanted to do was find a minor variation of her current deal – the one that was so overwhelmingly rejected last night.”
May did not appear to have spoken with Corbyn or other Labour leaders.
John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor, said that over the past two years, May “never picked up the phone.”
“We thought at least last night, having been defeated so badly, she’d learned the lesson and would start that conversation – she’s not,” McDonnell said.
Andrea Leadsom of the Conservative Party told BBC on Wednesday morning that May would try to achieve consensus by talking to “senior parliamentarians,” but seemed to suggest that this wouldn’t include Corbyn.
Labour leader Yvette Cooper tweeted that it was “ludicrous and unworkable” to try to move forward without talking with Corbyn.” The prime minister “has to accept she failed by 230 votes – she can’t just keep digging in,” she said.
Said Tonge: “We are in the biggest crisis since WWII – unless you reach across the divide and try and jump across the trenches, then we’re going to stay in a mess.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · William Booth, Karla Adam