Evidence is mounting that the plot to oust U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is faltering.
To trigger a vote of no confidence in her leadership, a total of 48 Conservative lawmakers need to submit letters, texts or emails calling for one. Late last week, as the backlash against May’s Brexit deal gathered pace, there was speculation that the threshold could be reached at any moment.
But by Monday, the Brexiteers appeared distinctly less ebullient as they had failed to reach their target, according to a person familiar with the situation.
That doesn’t mean everything is going May’s way. On Monday evening Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which has a formal agreement to vote with the Conservatives on budget matters, abstained and voted against the government on amendments to the Treasury’s Finance Bill. DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson told the BBC the votes were “designed to send a political message” about their unhappiness with her Brexit deal.
The loss of the DUP’s support makes the already challenging arithmetic of getting that deal through Parliament look even more difficult. Justice Secretary David Gauke urged the DUP and his Conservative colleagues to look at the deal again. “Given the options in front of us as a country, this deal is the best option,” he told the BBC.
But on the question of the immediate threat to May, the insurrection has not gone to plan. One rebel leader vented in private that more than 50 Tories had claimed they would submit letters but they hadn’t all followed through. A veteran Brexiteer said the ringleaders had used the wrong tactics.
Another hinted that now might not be the best time to strike.
“My expectation is that the number will be reached and there will be a vote at some point,” Crispin Blunt said in an interview in his House of Commons office under a full-size union flag. “One could argue that it would be better that that vote comes after the vote on the deal. If one were to sequence this properly: one would wait until we had the vote on the deal and then have the vote on the prime minister’s position as leader of the Conservative Party.”
Not everyone thought a challenge would be bad for the prime minister. One Cabinet ally said privately last week that she needed the confidence vote to happen, because she would win it, and then be safe from challenge under Tory rules for a year.
As for whether a leadership challenge will materialize or not, the only person who will know for sure is Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of rank-and-file Tory MPs. Tall and polite, the 51-year-old appeared calm earlier on Monday as he enjoyed a leisurely coffee in Parliament.
So far, more than 20 Tory lawmakers have publicly declared they want May to go. Newspapers have been claiming for weeks the number is well over 40. The Sun, a pro-Brexit tabloid, put the number as high as 42 on Monday. The required number represents 15 percent of the Conservative members of Parliament.
Arch Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative leader who was himself deposed via this arcane process, led a group into May’s office in 10 Downing Street Monday afternoon to ask for changes to the premier’s deal.
Asked by reporters afterward how the meeting had gone, Duncan Smith only replied that it had been “good” and “constructive.” Brexit backers like himself object to May’s deal because it risks tying the U.K. to EU rules indefinitely.
One Tory lawmaker said that despite claiming to have up to 80 supporters, ERG members won’t vote as a bloc when it comes to toppling May. Certainly, the past few days point to the group being divided as to the best strategy.
Even so, some haven’t given up hope of deposing her, anxious that a change of leadership is the only way to alter the direction of Brexit. One Tory lawmaker compared the process to the movie Jaws. Like a shark circling under the water, the number of letters could be growing, could reach 48 and surface to bite her at any time.
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