This article was updated today, 5/24. Please see postscript below.
After a tumultuous month in which the Conservatives lost a record number of seats in local council elections in England, the party’s voters defected in droves to the new Brexit party created by Nigel Farage that, according to the polls, will win a landslide victory in Thursday’s election for the European Parliament, and Tory backbenchers threatened to change the party rules to allow another vote of confidence in Theresa May’s leadership, last Thursday she agreed to set a timetable for her departure as party leader and to do so immediately after a vote in early June on the Second Reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
May had previously said she would step down as party leader, and hence prime minister, once the withdrawal agreement negotiated by the UK and the EU was approved by the House of Commons – it has been rejected three times – but refused to set a date. But last Thursday, after meeting for 90 minutes with the executive committee of the Tory backbenchers’ 1922 Committee which, under pressure from its members, was considering changing the party rules to allow a second vote of confidence in the party leader in less than a year – she won such a vote in December – she agreed that the timetable for selection of a new leader will be set immediately after the vote on the Second Reading and regardless of the outcome of that vote. The vote is scheduled for the first week of June, probably on June 7, after President Donald Trump’s visit and the events commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Importantly from the Committee’s perspective, that will allow the party to complete the first stage of the process of selecting a new leader, in which its MPs reduce, through a series of votes, the field of candidates to two by eliminating the lowest-placed candidate in each successive vote, before the Parliament’s summer recess which begins in late July, and to complete the second stage, in which the party’s 120,000 members select the leader from the final two candidates, before Parliament returns from its summer recess on Sept. 10 and prior to its recess from Sept. 13 to Oct. 8 for the annual party conferences, including the Conservative Party Conference that begins on Sept. 29. There are almost as many candidates for the leadership as there are Democratic presidential candidates in the U.S. But certainly the leading candidate at this is point is former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who said immediately after last Thursday’s meeting between May and the 1922 Committee, “I’m going to go for it. Of course I’m going to go for it.” Following at some distance behind, in the view of many observers, is Dominic Raab, who briefly served as Secretary of State for Exiting the EU last year.
Last Friday, after May and the 1922 Committee agreed to set the timetable for selection of a new party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, informed her that the cross-party talks, which had been underway for six weeks, “have now gone as far as they can,” that “we have been unable to bridge important policy gaps between us” and, “even more crucially, the increasing weakness and instability of your government means there cannot be confidence in securing whatever might be agreed between us.” The talks, which aimed to find some basis for agreement between the government and Labour in regard to the future relationship between the UK and EU that would enable the withdrawal agreement to be approved by the House, had begun soon after the agreement was rejected for the third time on Mar. 29.
Given the profound divisions over Europe and Brexit within the Conservative party, it had been apparent for some time, especially since the ill-advised 2017 election in which the party lost its parliamentary majority, that approval of any EU-UK withdrawal agreement would require some type of cross-party agreement. But if it was apparent that the only path to approval of the withdrawal agreement, given the existence of a minority government controlled by a party that is deeply divided over Europe and Brexit, was through some type of cross-party agreement, it was also apparent that any such effort undertaken with Labour would provoke a firestorm of outrage among many Tories, both in the House and in the constituency associations across the country. It was bad enough that the prime minister had refused to leave the EU without an approved agreement on the original Brexit date of Mar. 29 and had instead asked for an extension of the exit date. And it was worse that she later asked for a second extension and agreed that the UK would participate in the European Parliament elections if the withdrawal agreement wasn’t approved by May 22. But in the minds of many, it was too much when she offered to hold talks with and seek the support of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.
In the wake of the prime minister’s decision to open discussions with Labour, some Conservative MPs sought to have the backbenchers’ 1922 Committee call another vote of confidence in her leadership of the party and government and a motion to change the rule that prohibited a second such vote in less than a year nearly won a majority in the Committee’s executive committee. And last week, six weeks after the talks had begun, as it became apparent that 10 Downing St. was leaning toward some middle ground between Labour’s insistence on a permanent and comprehensive customs union between the UK and EU and the government’s proposal of a temporary customs union until the next election scheduled in 2022, 14 senior figures in the party, including Johnson, Raab, 11 other former cabinet ministers and, importantly, Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, wrote to May warning against acceptance of any customs union-like arrangement: “We believe that a customs-union-based deal with Labour will very likely lose the support of Conservative MPs like us who backed the withdrawal agreement in March (in many cases very reluctantly), and you would be unlikely to gain as many Labour MPs to compensate. More fundamentally, you would have lost the loyal middle of the Conservative party, split our party and with likely nothing positive to show for it. No leader can bind his or her successor, so the deal would likely be at best temporary, at worse illusory.”
While the talks between the government and Labour went on over the past six weeks, many Conservative voters, frustrated over the parliamentary impasse in regard to Brexit, the government’s failure to address the fear among many that the Irish “backstop” – the provisions in the withdrawal agreement designed to ensure that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remained open in all future circumstances – could become permanent, its refusal, in the absence of an approved withdrawal agreement, to leave the EU on Mar. 29, its several requests for extensions of the exit date, its willingness to participate in the EP elections, and its decision to open cross-party talks with the Labour Party, began to desert the party. The first evidence of the scale of discontent among Conservative voters came in the May. 2 elections in the 248 English local councils. The Conservatives continued to elect the largest number of councillors, more than 3500, and retained control of the largest number of councils, 93. But they lost more than 1330 seats and lost control of 44 councils. The big winners, perhaps surprisingly, were not the Labour Party, which lost 82 seats and control of six councils but, instead, the Liberal Democrats, who won 704 additional seats and control of 10 more councils, and the Greens, who won 194 additional seats.
But the most dramatic evidence of the extent of dissatisfaction among Conservative voters was the unprecedented growth in support for the new Brexit party in polls conducted in anticipation of tomorrow’s EP election. The party wasn’t even included in any of the polls asking voters which party they would support in the election until early April and in the first poll that included the party only 10 per cent said they intended to vote for it. But since then, the story of tomorrow’s election has been, more than anything else, a story of the growth of support for the Brexit party and the collapse of support for the Conservatives. In the final YouGov/Times poll, conducted on May 19-21 among 3,864 respondents, 37 per cent said they intended to vote for the Brexit party. Only 7 per cent said they intended to vote for the Conservatives, which, if those results hold in tomorrow’s election, would place the Conservatives a distant fifth behind the Brexit party (37 per cent), the Liberal Democrats (19 per cent), Labour (13 per cent) and the Greens (12 per cent). With support in the mid-30s in all of the recent polls, the Brexit party will easily surpass the performance of the United Kingdom Independence Party in the 2014 EP election; UKIP, led at the time by Farage, won 26.8 per cent of the vote in that election.
Not surprisingly, much of the support for the Brexit party came from voters who had previously supported the Conservatives, especially those who had supported leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum. Thus, in the May 19-21 YouGov/Times poll, 72 per cent of those who said they voted to leave the EU in 2016 said they intended to vote tomorrow for the Brexit party, compared to only 7 per cent who said they intended to vote for the Conservatives. And 65 per cent of those who voted for the Conservatives in the June 2017 Westminster election said they intended to vote for the Brexit party, compared with only 16 per cent who said they intended to vote for the Conservatives.
Over the past several months, while the House has been considering and rejecting the several motions to approve the withdrawal agreement, there have been innumerable calls from party leaders and others for a second referendum on leaving the EU and massive demonstrations in support of a People’s Vote. Thanks in part to the dramatic growth in support for the Brexit party, tomorrow’s election has, to some extent, become that second referendum. And interestingly, the results in the final YouGov polls suggest a narrow majority in favor of remaining in the EU, in contrast to the 2016 referendum. Taken together (and disregarding for a moment the internal divisions within the Labour and Conservative parties), 52 per cent of those intending to vote in tomorrow’s election said they would support parties that are either formally committed to remaining in the EU or in which most of their members and supporters wish to remain in the EU – the Liberal Democrats (19), Labour (13), the Greens (12), the new Change UK (4), the SNP (3), and the Welsh Plaid Cymru (1) – while 48 per cent said they would support parties that are pro-Leave – the Brexit party (37), the Conservatives (7), and UKIP (3).
Whatever else one may say about Theresa May, she is persistent, and despite having agreed that the party will begin the process of selecting a new leader after the vote on the Second Reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, and regardless of the result of that vote, she wants to win that vote. Toward that end, yesterday in a speech after a long and at-times-acrimonious cabinet meeting and today in a statement in the House, she presented her 10-point “New Brexit Deal” that she believes will address the concerns expressed by MPs and others about the withdrawal agreement and will persuade a majority to approve the Second Reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
The “Deal” involves ten binding commitments that will be enshrined in legislation if the House approves the Bill: 1) protection of jobs by seeking as close to frictionless trade in goods as possible; 2) support for British manufacturing and agriculture by keeping up to date with EU rules for goods and products relevant to checks at the border; 3) empowerment of Parliament to break the deadlock over future customs arrangements; 4) passage of a new Workers’ Rights Bill; 5) maintenance of EU-level environmental protection; 6) the legal duty of government to seek changes to the political declaration consistent with the new deal; 7) a requirement for parliament to vote on whether to hold a second confirmatory referendum; 8) a guarantee of a greater role for Parliament in the negotiation of the future relationship; 9) a legal obligation to seek to conclude the “alternative arrangements” required to keep the Irish border open in all future circumstances so the “backlash” is not needed; and 10) the maintenance of the current complete alignment and integrity of Northern Ireland with the rest of the country.
Unfortunately for Theresa May and for her legacy – she did, after all, come into office in 2016 having pledged famously that “Brexit means Brexit” – judging from the initial reactions of House members, there is virtually no chance the House will be persuaded by the “ten binding commitments” in her “Deal” to approve the Second Reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. Indeed, a number of MPs who previously voted for the withdrawal agreement made it clear over the past two days they would not support the Bill. The fact that Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House who, with a number of other ministers, strongly opposed the prime minister’s “Deal” in yesterday’s cabinet meeting, decided to resign today would suggest that the odds that the WAB will be approved on its Second Reading are close to zero. Indeed, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that the Second Reading will be postponed or cancelled.
And so the Conservative MPs will soon – possibly very soon – begin the process of selecting a new leader, quite possibly one who wants to leave the EU without a negotiated withdrawal agreement, despite the fact that the House has already rejected that option. And so the long-running and seemingly never-ending Brexit saga will go on, presumably until the House has the good sense to either decide to remain in the EU and revoke the Article 50 notification or, in the event the Conservatives choose a leader committed to a no-deal Brexit, to call a new election that might bring to office a government committed to revoking Article 50.
But in the meantime, the Brexit party will have a very good day tomorrow.
Postscript, May 24:
Theresa May had planned to publish the government’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill today in preparation for a vote on its Second Reading in the first week of June, probably on June 7. As noted above, last Thursday, after meeting for 90 minutes with the executive committee of the Conservative backbenchers’ 1922 Committee, she agreed that the timetable for selecting a new leader would be set immediately after the vote and regardless of the outcome. But after her speech Tuesday and statement in the House Wednesday setting out her 10-point “New Brexit Deal,” the strong objections of many cabinet members and MPS to various commitments in the Bill – most notably, in regard to the future customs arrangements with the EU and a second confirmatory referendum – made it clear not only that the Bill was dead on arrival but that the party no longer had confidence in her leadership.
On Wednesday evening, the executive committee of the 1922 Committee met again, voted by secret ballot on whether to change the party rules and allow another vote of confidence by the party’s MPs and put the ballots in a sealed envelope that would be opened if she refused to step down by June 10. But the party did not have to wait that long; this morning, after meeting with Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the Committee, Theresa May announced at a lectern in Downing St. that she will resign as leader on June 7 and the process of selecting a new leader will begin the following week.
David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and the director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.