Analysis: This is the beginning of the end for Theresa May

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 14 December 2018 in Inside Politics

This week we have witnessed one of the most brutal, punishing, unedifying spectacles in recent British political history

Image credit: PA/Holyrood

The sun had long since set on Westminster by the time the results of the secret ballot emerged, bringing the news that the Prime Minister had survived a vote of confidence in her leadership of the Conservative Party by 200 votes to 117.

Whispered rumours, hurried comments from grey-suited men rushing out of tiny rooms, this was the most secretive of highly public breakdowns, bringing a result that, like the referendum itself, can lend itself to a kaleidoscope of interpretations, depending on the eye of the beholder.

Not that any of it was beautiful. This was one of the most brutal, punishing, unedifying spectacles in recent British political history.

For Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of the cartoonish front men of the Eurosceptics driving the campaign to oust their own leader, this result was proof May could not continue.

As the chairman of the European Research Group put it, after claiming he accepted the result: “The Prime Minister must realise that under all constitutional norms, she ought to go to see the Queen urgently and resign.

“Constitutionally, if a prime minister can’t get her business through the House of Commons – and on Monday the Prime Minister got up and said she was going to lose so heavily she wasn’t even going to call the vote – and then discovers that the overwhelming majority of her backbenchers have voted against her, she clearly doesn’t have the confidence of the House of Commons and she should make way for someone who does.”

Perhaps predictably, his reaction was too much for critics to handle, with Rees-Mogg apparently convinced that a 52 per cent vote to leave the EU provided a mandate for the hardest of hard Brexits, while simultaneously comfortable with the idea the PM – his own leader – should be forced to resign during a time of near-unprecedented national instability after winning backing from 63 per cent of her MPs. Ignoring a 52 per cent vote for a bunch of vague, inconsistent, at times contradictory promises would amount to an affront to democracy. But ignoring a much bigger mandate, for a far clearer outcome, apparently represented a natural conclusion.

But even if the ingenuity of Rees-Mogg’s hypocrisy continues to find a way to surprise, there’s no denying the position the PM now finds herself in. She survived the contest but at a terrible political cost. The PM managed to convince her party to let her stay, but only by promising them she would leave.

The rebel tactics had been pretty straightforward. OK, you might be inclined to back her on Brexit, a wavering MP would be told, but do you really want her leading the party into the next election? That simple question, it seemed, had been gaining ground among a group clearly still scarred by May’s decision to call a snap election back in 2017 before launching one of the most appalling campaigns imaginable.

So May did have one trick left. She could pull the rug out from under the feet of the Eurosceptic conspirators, but only if she fell down with them. If they kept her for now, she promised, she would resign before the next election.

According to reports in the room where she addressed MPs, May became visibly emotional as she spoke – and yes, she won – but at that moment, the countdown to her last day in office began.

And whenever that day comes, it’s still entirely unclear what sort of legacy she will leave on her way out, given her Brexit deal has come no closer to winning majority backing in the Commons.

She pulled the vote this week because it was obvious she couldn’t win – worse, that she would lose badly – and without the EU somehow deciding to capitulate in an unprecedented manner and give in to all of the UK’s demands, there is no visible route for navigating her plan through parliament.

As Lee Rowley, the Tory MP for North East Derbyshire, apparently told her in that desperate last-minute pitch for support, “Stamina is not a strategy.”

It was brutal and it was true – maybe it was made more brutal because it was so true – and it was all the more hurtful because stamina is the one resource May seems to possess in bucketloads.

So the PM has gone back to Europe for another round of meetings, maybe symbolic, maybe meaningful, while opposition parties gather together and try to plot their response.

And although the reasons may be disputed, it’s clear that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has found itself confronting the weakest, most chaotic Conservative government in decades, and failed to gain any ground at all.

Facing repeated calls from the SNP to table a confidence motion – the SNP could do this itself if it wanted to – Labour continued to insist it would only do so when it believed it would be most likely to succeed, probably when the PM brings her Brexit deal back to the Commons (there’s no date for this).

And the obstacles facing the PM certainly still seem to be mounting. Infighting, backstabbing and plots – the terrain confronting the PM already looks treacherous enough, even before you consider the more practical obstacles standing in her way.

The backstop appears to be a red-line for the Eurosceptics, but the idea the EU will do a U-turn and renounce its support for Ireland’s position looks fanciful at best.

Meanwhile, the UK Government is still stung by its decision to spend months and months and hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money in opposing a case, brought by a cross-party group of Scottish MSPs, MPs and MEPs, arguing the UK could unilaterally revoke its decision to trigger Article 50. Put simply, the UK could cancel Brexit if parliament agreed.

As MP Joanna Cherry QC – one of those who raised the case – put it: “I’m delighted that we now know definitively that there is an option to stay in the EU.

“The UK Government has ignored Scotland’s vote to remain and all compromises suggested by the Scottish Government. 

“They also fought us every inch of the way in this case, so it’s a particularly sweet irony that Scottish parliamentarians and the Scottish courts have provided this lifeline to the UK parliament at this moment of crisis.”

The UK Government’s defeat was then followed, shortly afterwards, by the news that the UK Supreme Court had found that the Scottish Government’s Brexit legislation fell within Holyrood’s competence “as a whole”.

The emergency legislation, passed with backing from every party except the Scottish Conservatives in March this year, had represented a Scottish alternative to the EU Withdrawal Bill, which a majority of MSPs refused to support due to concerns over its effect on devolved powers.

But the case was then referred to court by UK government law officers, with the eventual ruling finding that, at the time the bill had been passed, it was within the competence of the Scottish Parliament, with the exception of one section.

However, the court also found that changes made to UK legislation afterwards meant a number of other sections in the Scottish bill now could not stand.

Predictably, the judgment provided ammunition for supporters of both sides.

For Scottish Secretary David Mundell, the judgement provided some “much-needed legal clarity” that the bill “goes beyond the powers of the Scottish Parliament”.

Shadow Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution Adam Tomkins then went further, claiming the bill had been “eviscerated” by the Supreme Court, with the judgment apparently “leaving it in tatters”.

As he put it: “There is no need for parliament to reconsider any of this – what parliament should do is bin it”.

Meanwhile, for Constitutional Relations Secretary Michael Russell, the case proved the Scottish Government was “vindicated”.

He said: “Worryingly, parts of the bill have been thwarted as a result of steps taken by the UK Government. For the first time ever, UK law officers delayed an act of the Scottish Parliament from becoming law by referring it to the Supreme Court.

“Then the UK Government, for the first time ever, invited the UK Parliament to pass a bill which they knew would cut the powers of the Scottish Parliament without its consent. The UK Government changed the rules of the game midway through the match.

“This is an act of constitutional vandalism but that does not take away from the fact this judgment makes clear MSPs were perfectly entitled to prepare Scotland’s laws for Brexit at the time this bill was passed.”

So, faced with unfamiliar times, Scottish politics responded along familiar lines. And yet given everything that’s happening – it’s actually unclear how many crises the UK is currently experiencing – there was something vaguely soothing about how dull Derek Mackay’s budget announcement turned out to be.

The speech, which had been scheduled well before the Conservative backbench rebellion, or even the postponed Brexit debate, included plans for a freeze on income tax rates, alongside a £730m boost for health and care services, brought by increased funding of the NHS south of the border.

Warning that the budget was delivered in the context of Westminster austerity and the instability caused by Brexit, Mackay announced plans which would see anyone earning under £27,000 in Scotland – that’s around 55 per cent of taxpayers – paying less income tax than those on the same salary in the rest of the UK.

These taxpayers would be around £20 a year better off than their UK counterparts, according to the Fraser of Allander Institute. In its analysis, the institute found that those earning £40,000 in Scotland would pay £130 more than they would if they lived in the rest of the UK, while those on £50,000 would pay an additional £1,544. People earning £100,000 would pay £2,044 more.

In other circumstances, the budget probably would have received more attention, but in the context in which it was delivered – hours before the confidence vote opened – Mackay could have said almost anything and still not topped the news agenda.

In fact, his speech actually included what appeared to be a few taunts at his UK counterparts – he introduced it, on the day of the backbench coup in the Commons, with a reference to the “strong and stable” approach of the Scottish Government – but it seems highly unlikely anyone in the Prime Minister’s office had the time or energy to notice.

This is a critical moment in defining the UK’s future, and the people steering decisions must be running on empty. Lee Rowley was right in pointing out that stamina does not amount to a strategy, but it’s surely a necessary ingredient for the Prime Minister if she has any hope of clinging onto office beyond the next couple of weeks.

Yes, she survived the confidence vote, and no, the opposition may not have the numbers to force a general election. The PM may even have found her position temporarily strengthened, given there cannot be another internal challenge for a year.

But the sense remains that the British Prime Minister’s time is running out.

She promised she would leave and the coup is over, for now, yet manoeuvring for the chance to become the next Tory leader has surely already begun.

This may only be the end of the beginning in Brexit terms, but for the PM, it is the beginning of the end.

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