Whoops of triumph greeted greeted Sir Graham Brady’s announcement that the parliamentary party “does have confidence” in Theresa May.
Conservative MPs who had crowded into Committee Room 14 to hear the result of the vote sounded beside themselves with joy. The Tory tribe demonstrated its delight with a great drumming on desks and by rising for a standing ovation.
But it had not yet heard the figures, which Sir Graham now read out: in favour 200, against 117. The second figure fell like icy water on the celebrators and extinguished all feelings of joy.
The scene was watched from the back of the lofty room by almost a hundred journalists. It was clear in an instant that far from winning a triumph, the Prime Minister and her supporters had suffered a humiliating rebuff, with over a third of her own MPs declaring they have no confidence in her, and this after a highly visible effort to swing the vote in her favour.
During the long wait for the announcement, feelings of hilarity often surfaced, and someone even managed to bring a broad smile to Sir Graham’s face as he entered with the 1922 Committee to read out the results. This prior hilarity made the shock of the result all the greater.
Outside in the Committee Corridor, MPs from both sides of the divide started trying to spin the result as favourably as they could. For the Prime Minister’s supporters, the pretence that she can continue with business as normal was extremely difficult to maintain.
The Prime Minister herself soon appeared next to the Christmas tree in Downing Street and spoke of “our renewed mission”, but it is hard to see any renewal in these figures.
“Never glad confident morning again!” During the Profumo scandal,of 1963 that line from Browning’s poem The Lost Leader was quoted from the backbenches against the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, by Nigel Birch, who had some years earlier resigned from the Treasury along with Peter Thorneycroft and Enoch Powell.
Within a few months Macmillan was gone, and there was a similar mood of valediction at Westminster last night.