When Theresa May appeared in front of the media at Downing Street on Wednesday night, it was to announce a step forward in the UK’s Brexit negotiations: the backing of her Cabinet for a draft withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU. But not even 24 hours later, she addressed the country again, this time amid speculation about her own future following a chaotic day of resignations and internal Conservative plotting. What happened, why did the UK spend half an hour staring at a door yesterday and where does it leave us now?
What was the deal?
The draft agreement, announced on Wednesday, was a hefty 585 pages long, but among its “highlights” were details about how the UK would meet its financial commitments to the EU, the rights of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in Europe, and plans for a “backstop” – a sort of safety net protecting against a hard border until a trade deal is agreed – on the Irish border. It also laid out a 21-month transition period and rough principles for a trade agreement, the detail of which will be negotiated during transition.
Who has resigned?
Discord was rife from the moment Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting ended and it didn’t take long to hit, with Dominic Raab, secretary of state for exiting the European Union, the first Cabinet member to resign early yesterday morning. Closely following him was work and pensions secretary Esther McVey and a raft of junior ministers. These resignations mainly came from Brexit-supporting MPs arguing that the draft agreement made too many concessions to the EU and didn’t deliver what the public voted for.
Will there be a vote of no confidence?
Rumours have circulated for months of plans to oust May as Conservative leader through the party’s no-confidence procedure, which requires 48 Conservative MPs to submit letters to the party’s 1922 Committee. The number of letters received is kept secret until this threshold is reached, at which point a vote is triggered, resulting either in a leadership challenge or the protection of the incumbent leader from being challenged for a further year.
Adding their voices to Cabinet resignations, a number of MPs yesterday made their letters public, including high-profile Brexiteer and possible leadership candidate Jacob Rees-Mogg. There is a widespread sense that the trigger will be reached imminently.
This morning, the future of the prime minister, the Conservative party, the government – and, with them, the country – all hangs in the balance
How has Theresa May responded?
Despite yesterday’s chaos, May gave a press conference just after 5pm in which she reiterated her belief in her Brexit plan and promised to “[do] my job of getting the best deal for Britain”. She answered a string of journalists’ questions – and took listeners’ ones on LBC this morning – but hasn’t given much else away. In the House of Commons yesterday, she laid out what she sees as the UK’s options, saying, “We can choose to leave with no deal, we can risk no Brexit at all, or we can unite and support the best deal that can be negotiated.” Her strategy seems to be to stick resolutely to that line.
What happens next?
This really depends on a huge range of factors and how they intersect in the coming hours and days. A new deal, People’s Vote or general election are still theoretically possible, but all present huge risks to May and are unlikely to come directly from her. The threat of further resignations still looms, with big-name ministers Penny Mordaunt, Chris Grayling and Michael Gove – who last night turned down the Brexit Secretary position after his request to present a new deal was rejected – believed to be likely. A steady stream of letters also means May could face a vote of no confidence at any minute. Essentially, any change of leadership throws the whole Brexit process back up into the air.
And, even if she holds on, May needs to get her deal past the EU at the end of November and through parliament at the beginning of December – with the latter seeming unlikely, given she lacks a Commons majority and faced opposition from all sides of the House yesterday.
The UK has been in uncharted territory since 23 June 2016, but it has arguably never felt more like it than now. This morning, the future of the prime minister, the Conservative party, the government – and, with them, the country – all hangs in the balance.