A zombie premiership

In surviving the confidence vote, British Prime Minister Theresa May can claim pyrrhic victory over her party’s dissenters. However, she is now reliant on a helping hand from the EU if she is to manoeuvre her way out of the current impasse, David Whelan writes.

If Theresa May was to take one positive from her 200 to 117 victory on 12 December, it would be a greater sense of stability. While this stability will not be recognised in the House of Commons, where vocal supporters are few and far between, that the EU now know she will be in the driving seat for at least a year (barring an unlikely general election) is a partial plus.

That’s because May is reliant on EU concessions if she is to make any headway in ensuring the UK does not crash out on the 29 March 2019. May’s victory did nothing to heal the divisions within her party or in the House of Commons. The political limbo which she inhabits was recognised in her decision to defer the parliamentary vote on her withdrawal agreement until January, accepting that what was on the table was in line for a heavy defeat.

The main sticking point remains the backstop. Any hopes the Prime Minister had of acquiring fresh ‘assurances’ from Brussels to win over opponents have been dashed by the DUP, now in an unprecedented position of power. The party’s leader in Westminster, Nigel Dodds MP has outlined a requirement for “major surgery” on what has been agreed between the UK and the EU.

The DUP’s influence in Westminster has only been heightened further following May’s vote of confidence victory. Recognition that the majority of conservative MPs are against the idea of a general election has largely assuaged the DUP’s biggest fears – that its hostility to the deal could inadvertently lead to a Jeremy Corbyn-led government. In expressing its confidence in Theresa May – at least in principle – and in the knowledge that May must continue to curry favour, the party can now flex its political muscles in Parliament. With no guarantee of control of the house, May now leads a zombie premiership.

May’s hopes now turn to Europe and much like the red lines the Prime Minister drew early in the negotiation process, there are concerns that she may have pledged more than she can deliver. Speaking after her decision to defer the vote on the withdrawal agreement she pledged to go back to the European Council to seek “legal and political assurances” in the hope of swaying support.

“Domestic legislative tinkering won’t cut it.”

— Arlene Foster, MLA

The problem for Theresa May is that opponents have indicated that political assurances will not be enough. DUP leader Arlene Foster stated: “Domestic legislative tinkering won’t cut it.” However, the EU has indicated that any legal alterations to the withdrawal agreement are not an option, outlining that the bloc cannot in any way “contradict” or change the meaning of the withdrawal agreement.

With May’s guarantee that she will not be ousted by her own party before 29 March 2019, the EU may recognise the potential to offer some concession to provide her with the support she needs to get the deal approved rather than face a future renegotiation or a no deal scenario. It has been mooted that this could come in the form of a ‘joint interpretative instrument’. This would be essentially a side deal that would not require any legal alteration to the current agreement and would provide a context for the purpose of interpretation.

However, how likely this is, remains unclear. The EU may still view May as lacking the authority to get any agreement through parliament and therefore be hesitant to move. At the same time, such a move may also undermine any prospect of the UK halting the process of leaving the European Union in the face of no deal, now an option after the European Court of Justice declared that the UK has the power to unilaterally withdraw its notification to leave the EU under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Timing will also be crucial. If the EU is to offer an olive branch to Theresa May, they will seek to do it as close to the rearranged Westminster vote as possible. May has said that she will bring the vote on the week of 14 January. However, both sides will be keen to avoid a situation where Brexiteers are afforded sufficient time to ferment rejuvenated dissent.

Arlene Foster met with Theresa May prior to the no confidence vote and suggested that the Prime Minister was cognisant of DUP concerns around the integrity of
the union.

“The Prime Minister has known our position. We have been consistent which is why it is so frustrating that our warnings about the backstop have not been heeded,” she said.

“The DUP wants a sensible deal which our MPs can support in the House. Unionism in Northern Ireland and across the House of Commons has rightly stood against this withdrawal agreement.”

Whether May can reach an agreement with the EU that can turn the tide of support in the UK remains to be seen. May’s personal concession came in the form of her guarantee that she would not lead the Conservatives in contesting the 2022 general election, a pledge with short-term benefits but that may serve to undermine her going forward. 

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