LONDON—Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, was famously felled by her own Conservative party after a decade in office. On Wednesday, a wing of the same party moved to kick out the second female premier in another civil war over Europe.
In a dramatic vote on Wednesday night, Theresa May managed to cling on to power but the confidence vote has further eroded her authority with more than a third of Conservative lawmakers voting against her.
The victory was secured after reportedly promising party members that she would stand down before the next election.
Just 107 days before Britain is due to exit the European Union, she will now be forced to head back to the European capitals in a late bid to improve her Brexit deal with the other leaders having witnessed her desperate attempts to maintain control of her own party.
The Conservative party has always prided itself on the ruthless pursuit of power, but there’s one issue that transforms its lawmakers from hardened professionals into raving loons—and the issue of Europe struck again; weakening the party’s grip on No. 10 in the midst of Britain’s greatest crisis since the Second World War.
The vote was triggered by at least 48 Conservative lawmakers handing secret letters of no confidence in their leader to a party official. Once that threshold of 15 percent of the parliamentary party was passed Tuesday night, a vote of all Conservative members of parliament (MPs) was automatically required.
The voting concluded at 8 p.m. (3 p.m. ET) Wednesday and the results were announced around an hour later—shortly before a frosty Conservative HQ Christmas party was due to begin. Party loyalists cheered when it was confirmed that May had won the vote but the result of 200 to 117 was far closer than many had predicted, and will be a major blow to her authority.
Despite the victory, Brexiteer lawmakers took to news networks to renew their calls for her to resign, saying the result proves she is now unable to command a majority in parliament for her Brexit deal.
Speaking to the BBC immediately after the result, leading pro-Brexit MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “The prime minister must realize that under all constitutional norms she ought to go and see the Queen urgently and resign … She clearly doesn’t have the confidence of the House of Commons, she should make way for someone who does.”
But May pledged to battle on, saying outside 10 Downing Street: "While I'm grateful for that support a significant number of my colleagues did cast a vote against me. I've listened to what they have said.” She added that she would now “get on with the job of delivering Brexit for the British people and building a better future for this country."
Party moderates had begged the hardline Brexiteers to stick by May for now or risk enraging the public, many of whom will be baffled by the Conservatives’ willingness to put complex arguments over shared sovereignty and the party leadership above the stability of the country at a time of crisis.
That call for moderation was ignored by one wing of the party, but a majority of Conservative lawmakers were ultimately able to fight them off during a hastily-convened vote that came around 12 hours after it emerged that she was being challenged.
A U.K. government minister told The Daily Beast soon after the vote was called that it was obvious she would win, but the size of vote would determine her legitimacy. “She’ll win. Margin 2-1,” he said. “But then she will have to decide if she can govern with such a grand portion of her party unable to endorse her personally.”
More than 100 of her own MPs voted against her—significantly more than the hard Brexit wing.
In a bid to win over some of her critics, May accepted for the first time that she would not stay on as party leader to contest the next General Election during an emotional speech to Conservative lawmakers before they cast their votes.
Lawmakers on both sides of the Brexit debate have been infuriated by the deal May thrashed out with EU leaders.
The agreement includes a special measure to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but some fear that would effectively leave the U.K. bound by EU rules without any say over their creation.
Sir Crispin Blunt, a former Conservative minister and one of the 48 lawmakers to draft a letter of no confidence, said that no matter the result of the vote he hoped May would be encouraged by the strength of feeling in the party to chart a new path on Brexit.
He told The Daily Beast that she must now accept that her deal would not be passed by the House of Commons and she should prepare for a no-deal Brexit on World Trade Organization terms.
“I would hope she recognizes there are very serious problems with the best deal available from the EU,” he said. “It is obvious that [her deal] is going down by a very substantial margin and she should be saying at that point we need to crack on with moving to WTO terms on the 29th of March.”
May’s victory means she is safe from formal leadership challenges for the next 12 months, but that will not end the unofficial leadership campaign which has been raging for more than a year.
There’s at least a dozen Conservatives who think they could do a better job at completing the Brexit negotiation. Now that May has conceded that she is on the way out, that rivalry will only intensify.
Unfortunately, at this point Britain is so badly divided that it needs an Abraham Lincoln figure to hold it together—instead, the people forcing this vote are seen as clowns, ideologues, or charlatans who are either misleading the public or chasing impossible dreams.
If a Brexiteer who submitted one of the 48 letters emerged as the new prime minister, a hard Brexit would become far more likely, threatening an economic crash in the U.K. and Europe that would ripple all over the world.
These lawmakers are consumed by taking Britain fully out of any European institutions and trade networks for the sake of British sovereignty—no matter the economic cost.
There are also a clutch of more reasonable and ambitious Conservatives whose elevation to party leader would present them with all of the same problems currently stacked up on May’s desk.
May’s charm and ability to connect on a human level is so famously lacking that she’s known as “the Maybot,” but the fundamental Brexit calculations wouldn’t get any easier no matter who was facing them.
It was partly for that reason that the majority of the party decided to stick with May for now.
Speaking on the steps of No. 10 an hour after news of the vote broke, she appealed to the party on the grounds that there was no time for a successor to be chosen and renegotiate Brexit before March 29.
“Weeks spent tearing ourselves apart will only create more division, just as we should be standing together to serve our country. None of that would be in the national interest,” she said.
She attacked the hardcore Brexiteers directly, telling the rest of the party: “The Conservatives must not be a single-issue party. We are a party of the whole nation—moderate, pragmatic, mainstream.”
Within hours of the vote being announced, over 100 Conservative MPs had already said that they would back May. “A leadership contest is the last thing we need. What the public want is for us to sort Brexit now,” Scottish Secretary David Mundell told The Daily Beast.