John Osullivan

Theresa May has won but at the price of boxing herself in

Theresa May has won but at the price of boxing herself in
Text settings

Theresa May’s victory in the 1922 committee confidence vote is one of those boxing matches that leaves both sides preparing for an early rematch—with the challengers somewhat more eager for one than the champion. The defeated Noes got 37 per cent of the vote, according to the numerate Tim Stanley, of an electorate that provided a 100 per cent turnout of Tory MPs. That’s seventeen votes short of a two-thirds majority for the Prime Minister compared to John Major’s achievement of getting four votes more than that traditionally decisive margin in 1995. Her critics got about the same percentage of the non-payroll vote. Given that this time Brexit was also at stake—which raises the stakes above the personal survival of either Prime Minister—a better comparison may be the vote against Neville Chamberlain in the 1940 Norway debate that by degrees led Churchill to power. On that occasion, the Chamberlain government won with 281 votes but 101 government supporters either voted against him (41) or abstained (60.) Statistically, Chamberlain did better in less favourable parliamentary circumstances, but he was still out of power a week later.

Nothing quite that dramatic is likely here. But a quick parade of winners and losers may hold clues to the future. Julian Smith, the Tory chief whip, has underperformed almost showily unless he’s a secret Leaver. Advising the PM and Cabinet that he had the situation well in hand until the very week in which he had invited the television cameras in to record his botched triumph is a double something. (Let’s not inquire what.) Many broadsheet and establishment hacks were too gleeful too soon—quite an achievement when the entire crisis lasted three days—about the discomfiture of the ERG and other Brexiteers. Some of it was ingrained Remainer prejudice; some a simple unjustified intellectual snobbery; but some was the lazy assumption that the government and the establishment always wins over the 'extremists'. Had they ever asked how the 1922 Committee got its title?

And that leaves Theresa May. Whatever direction you look, she has boxed herself in. She stays because she has promised to go, perhaps needlessly, but if she was expecting to make the passage of her Withdrawal Agreement the moment for a retiring gesture, that now looks unachievable. If 117 Tory MPs have voted against her personally, she and Smith can hardly risk putting her signature dish before the House. She seems to have given the DUP a veto on whatever policy she wants to pursue, and they will not be diffident about exercising it. That is inconsistent with the fact that she’s the prisoner of Remainer allies in government whom she will have to disappoint when they ask her to press ahead with the dilution of Brexit.

And, finally, she knows that some, maybe many, of the 200 “loyalists” who voted for her did so because that was the safe choice, the one most likely to be rewarded and least likely to invite punishment. But the Tory party is a Leaver party in the country. And as Cowling’s Law has it, all politics is about the next by-election. What happens if there’s an inconvenient death and a by-election in, say, Sunderland. How brave, or loyal, will the 200 be then?