Theresa May bracing for leadership challenge

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Theresa May
Prime Minister Theresa May speaking outside Number 10 Downing Street yesterday. Image: Number 10 (CC2.0)

British Prime Minister Theresa May could face a challenge to her leadership of the ruling Conservative Party as early as today according to reporting.

The rumors follow the announcement of a controversial Brexit deal agreement between the UK and EU made by May late yesterday.

The precarious leadership of Theresa May

Ever since she lost the Conservative majority in Parliament after calling an unnecessary general election in 2017, rumors of plots against Theresa May have been a constant feature of Westminster reporting.

Two factors might make the recent stories about a coup more believable. One is yesterday’s  announcement of a Brexit deal with the EU, which is pushing all MPs to take a stand on the most contentious issue in British politics.

Another is reporting of outrage among the Tory MPs by two of the UK’s most respected journalists last night.

To trigger a leadership challenge, 48 MPs will need to write a letter of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee. According to BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg that process may be underway.

ITV’s Robert Peston tweeted a very similar report of outrage among Conservative Brexit supporters, known generally as “Brexiteers.”

This morning Peston expanded on this reporting with a lengthy Facebook post:

“What is on public display is a Tory Party at war with itself beyond anything I’ve ever witnessed.

“There is a residual chance that if she gives the performance of her life when selling the deal to the Commons today that some of the rebels could change their mind.

“But I would not count on it.”

There have been two resignations from the Conservative front bench this morning: Northern Irish Secretary Shailesh Vara, and now perhaps fatally for May, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab:

The Brexit deal: pleasing absolutely no one

Although the Brexit deal negotiated by Theresa May would technically remove the UK from the EU, it would not remove EU control over some of the issues most important to Brexiteer MPs.

The Irish border, which separates the UK’s Province of Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland, has surprisingly turned out to be the most problematic issue for Theresa May’s Brexit strategy. Having no border controls whatsoever, not even a visible border infrastructure, is a fundamental part of the Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to Northern Ireland decades of conflict. Neither side of negotiations want to put a visible border back in place and risk an unravelling of the last twenty years of progress.

But the EU is understandably unwilling to have an open border with a country not fully signed up to its customs regulations. It insists on the UK staying in the EU customs union or having a customs border in Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Having any sort of border on either side of Northern Ireland is a red line for the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland. Theresa May’s minority government relies on the support of the DUP to remain in office.

The DUP have already made it clear they will not support the announced plan. Scottish Conservatives are making threatening noises because of possible continued EU control over the Scottish fishing industry. Over a dozen hard-line Brexiteers are expected to oppose it because the deal is seen as a capitulation to the EU. And several prominent Remainer Tories, including former transport minister Jo Johnson, are pledged to vote against it for the opposite reason.

What happens if Theresa May’s leadership is challenged?

If Sir Graham does receive the required 48 letters to kick off a leadership challenge, an already chaotic British political scene will only grow more so.

Theresa May would remain Prime Minister while the challenge is underway (assuming she does not resign). Her office is derived from Parliament as a whole, not just her party. But as soon as a new Conservative leader is chosen that MP would likely replace her following a confidence vote in the House of Commons (assuming the DUP are still willing to prop up a minority Tory government).

If the challenge fails, party rules say a new challenge cannot be mounted for a full year. In normal times a full year free from challenge would be a big boost for May, and this may be a reason she has gone unchallenged so far despite much disquiet among rank and file Conservatives. But these are not normal times.

The process to replace a Conservative Party leader normally takes a few months. Tory MPs choose their top two choices in a series of votes before the wider Conservative Party membership chooses from those two. But as it currently stands, the UK will be out of the EU with or without a deal on March 29th.

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