The first rule of politics is to learn how to count. So said the ultimate politicians’ politician President Johnson. And he was right, of course. Politics is a bit about ideas and a lot about maths. Either you can carry a constituency – out in the country, in the House or in your own party – or you can’t. Turns out that May’s naysayers in the ERG can’t. Carry a constituency. Or, on recent evidence, count.
The trouble is, neither can the Prime Minister. 200-117 is a bad result for the ERG and a bad result for the PM. Everyone loses. And so it is that after a day of huge drama very little has changed. There is still not a majority in the Conservative Party to remove Mrs May as its leader. And there is still not a majority – either in Parliament or in the party – to support her policy on Brexit. And so our politics returns to its default status in 2018, stalemate.
Comparisons to Mrs Thatcher’s fall have abounded today, as excited newscasters have filled chilly hours of rolling news. But they are misplaced on at least one front. Maggie would have had to face a second round of votes, having won the first, under the party’s old rules. For Theresa no such humiliation awaits. A majority of one was all she needed. In the end she got better than that. It’s unlikely that she will now walk.
Tempting, then, to regard this as back to square one. But some things have changed. One such alteration in the political fabric could, should she wish, plays to the PM’s advantage. May now has immunity from another challenge for twelve months. This buys her a bit more elbow room, should she wish to begin dancing to another tune. Free from the threat of an ERG coup, Theresa May could now choose to pivot. She could soften her Brexit in the hope of bringing with her a cohort of Labour MPs, her loyalists and her own Remain-ultras into a grand coalition for ‘basically Norway’. That might stand a chance in the House. It isn’t nailed on – of course – but then again one thing that is certain is that she still doesn’t have the numbers for anything substantively else.
Can she do it? It would require a flexibility and an imagination that her critics do not credit her with. But then again, May has proven time and again that she doesn’t exactly regard her own word as binding. The general election was never going to happen. The meaningful vote would happen no matter what. Etc, etc.
But there is also a subtle shift in the other direction. May’s loyalists thought this vote might prove a moment of catharsis – that all rebellion would be laid to rest by glorious victory. Only eighty or so MPs voting no confidence would have provided that – so is politics, a game of averages where incumbency brings advantage. That is not what happened. She won, sure. But what a paltry score.
What will Labour do? It will continue to sit on its hands – to the fury of many a backbencher but to the strategic benefit of those who argue that the party should bide its time rather than commit to one unpopular option or another. The opposition is, for now, content to oppose.
On all sides of the debate, though, the advent prayer is for a 2019 where something (anything) decisively changes. Stalemate and stasis have been the status quo since May lost her snap election. But it can’t go on forever.