Theresa May heads back to Brussels to continue EU talks after scraping through leadership challenge
After a day of high drama that saw her cling on to power, Theresa May is returning to Brussels to seek concessions on her divisive Brexit deal.
The Prime Minister emerged bloodied and bruised but victorious, after she won a leadership challenge from her own MPs on Wednesday night.
Mrs May will now address EU leaders at the two-day European Council after seeing off rebels who attempted to remove her from the party leadership, winning by 200 votes to 117 in a secret ballot.
She will travel to the Belgian capital still faced with the same dilemma she faced before it all took place: how to convince the EU to tweak the Withdrawal Agreement so that it will be passed by Parliament.
Speaking in Downing Street moments after the result was announced, Mrs May acknowledged that a ‘significant’ number of her MPs had voted against her and said: ‘I have listened to what they said.’
She pledged to seek ‘legal and political assurances’ on the Brexit backstop to allay MPs’ concerns about her Withdrawal Agreement when she attends a European Council summit in Brussels on Thursday.
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And she said she and her administration had a ‘renewed mission”, saying: ‘Following this ballot, we now need to get on with the job of delivering Brexit for the British people and building a better future for this country.’
She said this must involve ‘politicians of all sides coming together and acting in the national interest’.
Day of chaos
It was a difficult 24 hours for the Prime Minister on Wednesday, kicking off with the news that the 48 letters threshold to trigger a confidence vote had been met.
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, announced that the vote was to be held that day, putting the Downing Street spin operation into overdrive.
Throughout the day more than 180 Tories publicly said they would vote to keep Mrs May in her job – was over the threshold of 159 she needed to win.
This compared with around 35 who said they would vote to bring her down.
Nevertheless, there were fears that some MPs who publicly backed the PM would vote against her in the secret ballot.
As a result, Mrs May met with the 1922 Committee and sowed the seeds for her eventual departure by telling telling them that she would not lead the party into the next General Election, expected in 2022.
According to MPs present at the meeting, she also promised to find a ‘legally binding solution’ to ensuring that the UK does not get permanently trapped in a backstop arrangement to keep the Irish border open after Brexit.
The scale of this task was highlighted by Irish premier Leo Varadkar and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who insisted in a phone call as MPs voted that the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement ‘cannot be reopened or contradicted’.
DUP leader Arlene Foster, who met Mrs May shortly before the ballot, insisted that ‘tinkering around the edges’ of the agreement would not be enough to win her party’s support for the deal.
Mrs Foster, whose 10 MPs prop up the minority Conservative administration, said she told the PM that ‘we were not seeking assurances or promises, we wanted fundamental legal text changes’.
Immediately after the vote result was announced by 1922 chairman Sir Graham Brady, she faced calls to resign from Brexit-backing MPs including Jacob Rees-Mogg, who said that she had lost the confidence of more than one-third of her MPs and a majority of backbenchers.
Mr Rees-Mogg said that Mrs May should resign ‘as soon as the Queen has a moment in her diary to see her’.
Out of the woods?
The hardline European Research Group (ERG) vowed to continue opposing Mrs May’s ‘disastrous’ Brexit deal, with a spokesman warning: ‘The parliamentary arithmetic remains unchanged.’
But other Brexiteers said they would end their efforts to unseat the Tory leader.
Crispin Blunt said: ‘The leadership question is now behind us for a year and we must get behind Theresa May in delivering Brexit.’
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the leadership vote ‘makes no difference to the lives of our people’.
He added: ‘The Prime Minister has lost her majority in Parliament, her Government is in chaos and she is unable to deliver a Brexit deal that works for the country and puts jobs and the economy first.’
Mrs May’s victory in the confidence vote means that another challenge cannot be mounted against her position as Tory leader for a year.
But she still faces the danger of a no-confidence motion in the House of Commons, which could bring her Government down if backed by more than half of all MPs.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell hinted that Labour could call the motion next week if Mrs May does not get changes to the Withdrawal Agreement that it wants.