Theresa May is in power. But she's not in charge.
That's essentially the takeaway from last night's 'no confidence' vote, where more than half of the Tory backbenchers who aren't on the PM's payroll (i.e. don't hold formal positions within the government) voted against the PM, narrowing her margin of victory to just 83 votes, which was hardly the overwhelming margin of victory for which the PM had hoped.
And even this number doesn't accurately reflect the waning enthusiasm for the prime minister; to avoid an even narrower victory, which might have prompted May to resign, May was forced to offer a serious concession on Wednesday: During a speech ahead of the secret ballot, May indicated that she would step down before the next general election (set for 2022), prompting speculation that she could resign as soon as early next year.
And while Brexiteers - who have been criticized by some pro-government MPs for their poor timing in orchestrating the vote - are reportedly "hunkering down" for "trench warfare" (suggesting that few will break ranks to back May's draft deal), according to the Times of London, some former members of May's government - including former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab - said during an early Thursday interview that it's "hard to see" how the PM can continue to lead.
"We will have to back her as best we can but problem is that both in relation to Brexit and wider sustainability of the government given likelihood of any changes to the deal, given the likely scale of opposition, it looks very difficult to see how this PM can lead us forward," Raab told reporters.
In another sign that May has been seriously weakened by the vote, the Times reported that several senior cabinet ministers are pushing May to bring back a vote on her deal before Christmas so that it can be voted down, and Parliament could proceed with holding a series of "indicative" votes on every conceivable deal option. This could give May leverage with the EU, while also demonstrating to intransigent MPs that there is sufficient political will to avoid ever triggering the backstop.
Cabinet Brexiteers and Remainers were agreed last night that Mrs May should push ahead with the vote on her Brexit plan before Christmas, both camps expecting her to lose heavily, according to the Times of London (though rumors of this plan first surfaced last month).
Five cabinet ministers - David Gauke, Amber Rudd, David Lidington, Greg Clark and Mr Hammond - want Mrs May to bring back her deal for a vote as early as next week. They then want the Commons to hold a series of "indicative" votes on every conceivable option, from a no-deal Brexit, a Canada-style agreement, a single market and customs union to a second referendum.
"They will all fail," one cabinet minister said. "At that point we will probably be able to rule out no-deal and Canada."
Though Commons leader Andrea Leadsome denied reports that a 'meaningful vote' will be called before Christmas.
With May heading back to Brussels on Thursday, EU leaders are reportedly digging in their heels, warning that, while they would be willing to agree to some minor "clarifications" and "legal assurances" about the backstop, the deal text - as it stands - must remain unchanged. According to one report, EU leaders are only planning to give May "ten minutes of their time" (after all, there are other burgeoning crises in Europe that are dividing the bloc's attention).
This should surprise nobody. Because, as one analyst told RT, what incentive does Europe have to fold? After two years of fraught negotiations, May has failed to unify her party. Given that any concessions could still face rejection, the only sensible approach for the EU is "take it or leave it."
Speaking shortly after the Wednesday vote, May said she is determined to fight for changes to her Brexit deal at an upcoming EU meeting on Thursday.
But it’s unlikely that Brussels won’t soften its stance on that, Szamuely said: "They figured that even if they make more concessions, there’s really no guarantee that she’ll be any more successful in winning the vote for Brexit."
And even if May lost the confidence vote, finding somebody else to lead the Tories might be difficult. Because, given the quagmire that the party has found itself in, what sane politicians would really want the job?
"What’s really worked for her is that nobody wants that job because it’s one of the worst jobs in the world," says George Szamuely, Senior Research Fellow of London Metropolitan University.
Unless May can pull off a miracle in Brussels, it's very likely that May's deal will eventually be voted down. And after that (as Deutsche Bank analysts noted the other day) the probability of either a second referendum or - worse - a general election triggered by a Labour-led vote of no confidence (there have been several anxiety-provoking reports about a possible DUP alliance with Labour to sabotage the government) will continue to climb.