At the June 2016 Brexit referendum, the UK voted to Leave the European Union by a 51.9-48.1 margin. In April 2017, the Conservatives led Labour by nearly 20 points in the polls. Expecting a landslide Conservative victory, PM Theresa May called a June 2017 election, three years early. Instead, Labour surged in the campaign, and the Conservatives lost their Commons majority.
The Conservatives won 317 of the 650 seats, Labour 262, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) 35, the Liberal Democrats 12 and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) ten. The Conservatives were forced into an agreement with the DUP.
Since the election, May has tended to defer important Brexit decisions, thus keeping the support of both the hard right Brexit faction and the soft Brexit faction within the Conservatives. However, on July 6, May’s Cabinet met at Chequers, and settled on a soft Brexit, in an attempt to avoid economic fallout from a hard Brexit.
As a result of this decision, two prominent hard Brexiteers – Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – resigned from Cabinet on July 8-9. The hard Brexit faction of the Conservatives is deeply unhappy with the Chequers deal, and many are demanding May’s resignation. But can they force May to resign?
To bring on a vote of no-confidence in the Conservative leader, 15% of Conservative MPs must write letters to the Chair of the 1922 Committee expressing no-confidence. If this threshold is passed, all Conservative MPs have a vote, and a majority no-confidence vote is required to oust the leader.
While hard Brexiteers have the 48 MPs required to trigger a confidence vote in May’s leadership, they are far short of the 159 MPs required to win such a vote.
In parliament, while the hard Brexiteers can propose amendments to Brexit and other legislation, they are powerless unless Labour joins them. While it is not pro-Remain, Labour’s Brexit policy is to the left of the Conservatives, and there will be few occasions when hard Brexiteers and Labour vote together.
An occasion where Labour and hard Brexiteers could vote together is on a formal confidence vote in the government. However, hard Brexiteers are right-wing on other issues, and do not want to make Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn PM, as they perceive him to be a socialist.
If a Brexit deal is agreed with the European Union, parliament must ratify the deal. For their own reasons, Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems are likely to oppose the deal. If the Conservatives were defeated in the vote on the Brexit deal, the UK would crash out without a deal on March 29, 2019.
So if Labour, the SNP and Lib Dems hold to their current position of opposing the Brexit deal, hard Brexiteers can secure the hardest Brexit – but likely with disastrous economic consequences.
A YouGov poll before the Chequers meeting gave the Conservatives a 41-40 lead over Labour. After the Chequers meeting, the parties were tied at 39% each. After the resignations of Davis and Johnson, Labour led by 39-37, with the Conservatives losing support to the UK Independence Party (UKIP). This was Labour’s first lead in a YouGov poll since March. Disillusionment with the Conservatives could damage them further in the coming days and weeks.
A major source for this article is Stephen Bush of the New Statesman’s Morning Call email (though it is more like Evening Call in Melbourne).