Theresa May faced a meeting with the Tories’ ‘1922 committee’ this evening – the body that by tradition makes and discards Tory leaders. Even though some political commentators had touted the meeting as the likely end of her tenure, she came through it intact – even easily. But her real ordeal may still be ahead.
May arrived, reportedly, to a good reception. The room was packed, with a full count of Tory whips there. Some Tory MPs were turned away – on the grounds, publicly at least, that there was no room for them.
The tenor of the meeting was mild to the point of blandness, with one Tory MP describing the room as “a petting zoo, not a lion’s den“.
Almost before it began, the meeting was over – MPs had behaved meekly, perhaps encouraged in their acquiescence by the presence of a full set of whips and nobody exiting the meeting seemed to have any sense that she had been damaged worse than she had been when she entered. This could, of course, change in an instant – letters from MPs to the committee can be sent in at any time..
Those Tory MPs who commented seemed to have found the meeting anticlimactic:
“She spoke emotionally.”
“There were no dissenting voices. Not one.”
The wrong maths
The reason the supposedly pivotal meeting passed off so quietly probably had little to do with any sudden surge in May’s popularity among Tory MPs and everything to do with arithmetic – two specific, simple sums.
Rumours abound that the required 48 letters expressing no confidence in May – enough to force a leadership contest. However, while the hard-Brexiteers are a numerically significant faction in the Tory party, they know they would very likely lose a confidence vote. The failure of so-called ‘rebels’ in the remain faction to actually rebel and the wish of the bulk of Tory MPs to cling to government would mitigate against a May defeat.
The Brexiteers’ strategy, therefore, is far more likely to centre on the Commons vote on May’s Brexit deal – likely to take place just before Christmas. To remove May, the Brexiteers would hope to turn the vote into a confidence vote – and borrow the votes of Labour MPs to defeat her. If May loses a confidence vote in the House, convention would require her resignation.
For Tory rebels to win a confidence vote within the party, they would need around 160 Tory votes against May. But given the tight balance between the parties, it would require only about 15 Tory votes against her deal to achieve the same effect in the Chamber.
Devils, details and false moves
Ultimately, if May survives to Christmas by winning a vote on her eventual deal with the EU, right-wing Labour MPs are likely to have handed it to her.
Some 4-12 Labour MPs – not the 45 touted by a few right-wingers in the hope of stiffening backbones among possible supporters – are likely to back May. This will mean that she needs either the DUP’s votes or those of the hardcore Brexiters if she is to carry the vote.
But Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy – a so-called moderate – has proposed an amendment to the government’s Northern Ireland bill that would add an abortion clause. In doing so, she has put into Theresa May’s hands a perfect sweetener to offer to the DUP, who will be utterly opposed to any such clause and will be even more against it being imposed on them by an English Labour MP.
If May whips her MPs to defeat Creasy’s abortion amendment to the NI bill, it could conceivably be an acceptable trade-off in the eyes of DUP MPs for not blocking the budget next week or the likely December EU vote.
The next couple of months will be key – and are likely to contain a few twists and turns yet. But it will be a bitter irony if Theresa May survives – and pushes a feeble, damaging Brexit deal through Parliament – because of a (presumably) rash move by an ardently pro-EU Blairite MP.
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