13 December 2018
In politics, timing is everything. And, with less than four months until we leave the EU and no obvious successor in place standing out as a popular alternative to Theresa May, the timing of Wednesday’s vote of no confidence could not have been worse for those who have sought to challenge the Prime Minister.
Furthermore, no one in the ERG could have known when the magic 48 would be reached, but for it to have happened while her back was turned, fighting Britain’s corner in Brussels and Berlin, left a sour taste in many MPs’ mouths.
In the run up to the vote, many Europhile MPs either tweeted in support of Mrs May or did not declare how they would vote, despite the fact that a number of extreme Remainer MPs are also believed to have put in letters to Sir Graham Brady. This enabled Number 10 to successfully characterise opponents as right-wing ERG Brexiteers.
Still, it was a difficult day for the Prime Minister. She knows that many who cheered her in the Commons, and banged tables in support in the Committee Room where the 1922 is held, will have knifed her in the back in the privacy of the ballot box. “Yet each man kills the thing he loves….. The coward does it with a kiss, the brave man with a sword.” Oscar Wilde’s words in 1898 resonate still in the House of Commons.
The days after winning a no confidence vote can be extremely testing for a Prime Minister. The vote against Thatcher in November 1990 took place after a period of great turmoil. She had been in office for 11 years and the poll tax riots and a series of by-election defeats – the key one being in my own constituency, which temporarily switched to Labour – unsettled back benchers and ministers alike.
“There was never any doubt that the steely Theresa May would be determined to carry on whatever the size of her majority”
In the end, she won by 204 votes to 152 with 16 abstentions. A clear majority. Her immediate response made to a startled John Sergeant who was reporting live on television from France was “I fight on; I fight to win” for in those days there was a second round of voting. She did not, however, and a few days later stood down when, with an election defeat looming, her cabinet demanded that she resign.
That said, with the backing of her Cabinet, the respect of much of the public as hard working and stoic and economic growth high despite the uncertainty of Brexit, there was never any doubt that the steely Theresa May would be determined to carry on whatever the size of her majority was – and following her victory yesterday, determined she will remain, no doubt.
Nonetheless, both she and the Parliamentary Party must now work hard to unify. As a party, we cannot return to the self-destructiveness of the John Major years.
Mr Major triggered his own leadership election by resigning as Leader of the Party while remaining as Prime Minister in June 1995. Major won comfortably with 218 votes against John Redwood’s 89 – one of which was mine, by the way. Nonetheless, the atmosphere in the Party leading up to the 1997 election was toxic. Colleagues wouldn’t talk to each other and the mutual loathing was palpable not only in the Chamber, but in the Tea Room too. MPs insulted each other across the tables and rows would often develop. It hasn’t got as bad as that yet and it must not be allowed to.
On Mrs May’s part, she must not cut a deal with Labour to see the Withdrawal Bill enacted; that would only crystallise the latent divisions in the Party. On our part, the rest of the Parliamentary Party must put our divisions behind us and work together.