Theresa May’s premiership is hanging by the threads after the British House of Commons voted down by 391-242 the Brexit withdrawal deal on Tuesday night. While the scale was less than the 432-202 margin in January, it was another historic defeat and Ms May could now lose control not just of the EU withdrawal process, but also her wider term of office.
Despite her last-minute shuttle diplomacy on Monday in Strasbourg, the accord she reached with the EU simply wasn’t enough to deliver victory on the central mission of her government. Ultimately, the fate of Tuesday’s big vote was sealed by the advice of Ms May’s own attorney general, Geoffrey Cox. He ruled the accords “reduced, but did not eliminate” the likelihood that the UK could remain, indefinitely, in the so-called backstop arrangements against its will.
This legal judgment simply did not give sufficient ‘political cover’ for many of the hardline Conservative Brexiteers, and the 10 Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs who prop up Ms May’s government, to fall behind the deal. Many had been hoping for further concrete legal assurances that the backstop will not become a permanent arrangement which would leave Britain effectively tied up in a customs union with the EU which is strongly opposed by many Brexiteers and the DUP. In a nutshell, Ms May lost because only 43 of the 118 Tories that voted against her deal in January came over to her side on Tuesday.
This doomed the measure, and possibly her premiership. With many Tories unhappy with the way Ms May has led withdrawal talks , there are now growing risks to her premiership. Brexiteers, for instance, argue that a change of occupant — and more robust approach — is needed in Downing St for more next-steps talks, if a withdrawal deal is ultimately agreed, on a future UK/EU trade deal.
Ms May’s political strategy failed not only with Tory and DUP backbenchers, but also Labour counterparts too. She failed to peel off any more Labour MPs in constituencies that voted leave in the 2016 referendum beyond the three who voted for her deal in January.
With Ms May’s future now so uncertain, her tenure in Downing St will be particularly precarious if the UK parliament votes for an Article 50 extension potentially delaying Brexit Day beyond the currently scheduled March 29 date. It is likely, but no means certain, that the commons would take up this opportunity to request an extension to Article 50 and it is in this scenario that a general election and/ or further referendum would grow in likelihood.
A key question, however, if such an extension is sought from the EU is how long this would be for? Even if London asks for only a very short technical extension to try to complete the Brexit withdrawal process, Brussels may want to see a longer timeframe to avoid another mini-deadline crisis in April. There has even been some discussion in Brussels of a much longer extension of Article 50 to potentially as long as December 2020 which is when the planned transition period, if a withdrawal is agreed, is planned to end.
However, a key challenge with this proposal is that any extension that goes beyond July 2 — the first day the new European Parliament meets — is that UK politicians would have to take part in the May 23-26 elections. It is for this reason, and the complications this would bring, that an extension no later than June is perhaps most likely. Any extension to Article 50 would probably not be finalised with the EU until next week’s March 21-22 summit of presidents and prime ministers in Brussels. In this context, there are now still several days in which Ms May could, potentially, have one further attempt at getting her deal through.
One trigger for this is the possibility she could get further concessions from Brussels next week. If this were to happen, she could maybe seek to expedite votes from March 23 through both the House of Commons and the Lords. The reason why this scenario cannot be ruled out is Ms May knows she will be most vulnerable in the event that Article 50 being pushed out.
There are several ways that she could be forced out of office in the coming days or weeks, short of her own resignation. Such an immediate resignation can only happen if she tells Queen Elizabeth II who should replace her. This may see the effective deputy prime minister, David Liddington, act in a sitting capacity while a Conservative leadership contest happens.
Other ways that could see Ms May ousted include losing a vote of no-confidence in the Commons after the last one in January failed. Moreover, there remains a possibility that the cabinet demands that Ms May go, possibly by several of them resigning , to make the prime minister’s position untenable.
Taken overall, Ms May is at the weakest point yet of her premiership. In coming days, she could yet be forced from office and much may now depend upon whether there is any extension of Article 50, and the prime minister will be particularly vulnerable if the currently scheduled Brexit is delayed for several months or more.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE Ideas at the London School of Economics.