Theresa May's government has survived a no-confidence vote called by the opposition Labour party following the humiliating rejection of her Brexit deal—the largest parliamentary defeat in British history.
Although dozens of her colleagues rebelled against her in the vote on her Brexit deal on Tuesday, the Conservative party rallied behind her—alongside the Northern Irish DUP which has a loose coalition arrangement with the Conservatives—to allow her to limp on with her faltering attempts to see through Britain's exit from the European Union.
May won the vote by 325 to 306.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called the no-confidence vote immediately after May's historic defeat, calling her administration a “zombie government” that “cannot govern.” He was backed by all the other parties in parliament—the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru and the Green Party.
But May's colleagues—who've so frequently betrayed and ridiculed her—decided to back her rather than running the risk of allowing the Labour party to take over with just 72 days left to go until the U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU at the end of March.
However, while May will savor the rare taste of victory, the result is not going to make her job any easier. Her deal was so resoundingly rejected that, even with some tweaks, the chances of any version of it ever getting the backing of Parliament currently appear to be vanishingly small.
In fact, despite the victory, a government source told The Daily Beast that another general election—which would be the third since 2015—is now much more likely.
The options open to her remain the same: go back to the other EU leaders with a begging bowl asking for more concessions, crash out of the EU in an economically-devastating no-deal scenario, or try and break out of the deadlock by asking the British people what they want to happen either in an election or repeat referendum on the European question.
What she'll actually do isn’t yet clear to anyone. She's stated that her preferred route is to seek more consensus in the British Parliament with cross-party talks before attempting to gain more concessions from the EU.
But the other 27 countries have been frosty about that possibility.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said earlier Wednesday that “we still have time to negotiate” on Brexit, but French President Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday, “We’ve reached the maximum of what we could do with the deal and we won’t, just to solve Britain’s domestic political issues, stop defending European interests.”
A U.K. government minister predicted to The Daily Beast that May will attempt to win support from a majority of Parliament by altering the deal before heading back to the EU for more talks. The minister said: “Resubmit the plan without the backstop. Secure the support and then go back to the EU and say ‘How’s about them apples?’”
The backstop is a temporary customs union between the U.K. and the EU which could be used to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republican of Ireland and has proved the major sticking point for pro-Brexit lawmakers who fear it will leave the U.K. bound by European laws without having any say over how they're made.
But the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier ruled out removing that measure from the agreement Wednesday, saying that “the backstop, which we agreed to with the U.K., must remain a backstop.”
What then, if a rejiggered deal is rejected by the EU? “We can go to the country,” the British minister said. “A general election which pits the U.K. Tories against the intransigent EU would be a godsend. It would unite the factions. May could claim to have tried to bend over backwards. It would be an election which would severely test the other parties.”
The Financial Times also reported that a number of cabinet ministers believe that an election is now more likely than people realize.
An election win for the Conservatives would amount to public approval for the May deal, and go some way in persuading rebels to back it. But an election, and indeed most other options open to May, would almost certainly require her to request an extension from EU leaders to the end-of-March deadline for the U.K. to leave.
As for the opposition Labour party, senior figures have already suggested that more no-confidence votes could follow this failed one as it becomes clearer and clearer that May can't win a majority on a deal. If one were to pass, a general election would be likely to follow.
Corbyn supporters in the Labour party told The Daily Beast that May's increasingly faltering efforts to organize Brexit will create anger from the public against the Conservative government and lead them to embrace the radical politics of Corbyn and Labour in an election.
But Labour is far from united on the issue either. The party's Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer has repeatedly said that the leadership needs to start considering backing a second referendum as a way out of the current impasse—but Corbyn seems reluctant to do so. Corbyn is expected to lay out his position on Thursday now that the no-confidence route has failed.
So while May can relax for a few hours, she'll soon be faced with the seemingly impossible Brexit impasse again—and time is running out fast.