The crucial context for yesterday’s confidence vote was that it came after a day of sustained and intensive effort by the Government to secure as many votes as it could. Emails were sent out to Party members from the Chairman, the Whip was restored to suspended MPs, and, most importantly, two controversial promises were made by the Prime Minister, then reiterated at the meeting of the 1922 Committee.
That those steps were felt necessary was a sign that Downing Street was evidently more concerned about the ballot than was widely assumed – something borne out by the higher than expected number of No Confidence votes.
Particularly telling are the two pledges that Theresa May gave to her MPs, both because they reveal the issues that she and her team implicitly acknowledge to be the most serious weaknesses in her position, and because each immediately raises vexed questions about whether she can actually abide by them and keep her word.
Limiting the backstop
The Prime Minister is reported to have promised MPs and ministers who are concerned about the risk of being trapped eternally in the backstop that she will secure a “legally binding” change which would make it temporary. There are other issues with the Withdrawal Agreement, of course, but such a change would certainly help to address the primary concern cited by many of her colleagues about the aspect of the agreement that they find most objectionable.
It’s notable that Downing Street has evidently realised that anything as unreliable as a mere promise, or as presentationally awkward as “I have in my hand a piece of paper…”, would not be sufficient to reassure MPs. The UK has recent experience of a supposedly “black and white” promise made to Cameron and Osborne about us being exempt from Eurozone bailouts being disregarded by the EU a couple of years later. So May knows that at minimum any change on the backstop must be indisputably, immovably, legally binding, or else it would be no use to her at all.
The difficulty is that the EU appears to have no intention of granting such a condition. Indeed, they argue that time-limiting the backstop (or allowing the UK a sovereign right to escape it) would defeat its purpose. Before yesterday, that was essentially Downing Street’s explanation for why it had conceded the full backstop in the first place, too.
May is right to seek such a change, but we’ve yet to hear an explanation of how she intends to fulfil her promise to secure it.
Not leading the Party into the next election
“In my heart, I would love to be able to lead the Conservative Party into the next General Election” are words that may inspire a bit of foreboding among many Tory MPs, candidates and activists after last time. The Prime Minister implicitly conceded that fact when she went on to promise that “…the next general election is in 2022 and I think it’s right another party leader takes us into that general election.”
It’s a peculiar pledge, in that she is promising something her audience already assumed to be the case, but even then it bears a bit of detailed examination. For a start, it is uncomfortably specific about departing before the 2022 election, and allows for the possibility that she might want to stay on right up to the threshold of that campaign. That is not a prospect all of her MPs would find very appealing, given the current state of affairs.
Furthermore, while the reports are headlined “Theresa May confirms she will not lead Tories into next election”, that isn’t quite what she has actually said. The Prime Minister’s promise appears to relate only to the 2022 election, on the assumption that there won’t be an election before then. Except she – and we – cannot reliably make that assumption. May’s 2017 gamble showed that it is possible to hold a snap election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and the hung Parliament which it produced means she does not have the power to promise that there will be no election before 2022. If there is an election before 2022, potentially at short notice and against her will, there seems every prospect she would try to lead her party into it, and the timescale might leave no opportunity for a replacement.
Lastly, this promise obviously isn’t binding. Particularly in the next 12 months, there can now be no further confidence ballot to unseat her. The best questioners get when they ask for more detailed assurance on this front is a sub-promise to underpin it, that the Prime Minister will not call a snap election. Except, of course, her MPs have heard that before – and the decision is not fully in her gift.
The outcome of the ballot leaves a tense stand-off, in which those MPs who supported May on the strength of these pledges and those MPs who did not now both expect her to demonstrate that she is both willing and able to fulfil them. The latter is sufficiently amorphous and medium-term that it may be possible to fudge it for a while yet, but the former is clearly testable and urgent, in that she must secure the promised concession from Brussels in the next few weeks. Quite what MPs would – or could – do if she fails to do so remains to be seen.