Theresa May just can’t win. Theresa May just can’t lose.
One day after the overwhelming and humiliating defeat of the European Union departure plan she spent months negotiating, May comfortably won a confidence vote Wednesday, 325–306, ensuring she will remain prime minister but doing little to clarify the way forward on Brexit. In Tuesday’s parliamentary vote on her deal, dozens of members of May’s Conservative Party and her coalition partners, the Democratic Unionist Party, voted against the government, but Wednesday they nearly all backed her. (The two parties together control 327 seats.)
The vote came after a day of contentious debate capped off by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, who accused May of “not just defying the laws of politics, but the laws of mathematics” in attempting to stay on the job. In a back-handed compliment, he praised May for her fortitude, saying, “To suffer the humiliations on the global stage that she has done would have finished off weaker people far sooner.”
It certainly hasn’t been easy to finish off May. This is the second vote of confidence she’s survived in a little over a month: Rebel members of the Conservative Party failed to unseat her in an intra-party vote in December.
She won’t have long to bask in her triumph. May announced following the vote that she would begin holding a series of meetings with senior members of Parliament to discuss “the way forward.” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn responded by saying he would agree to such a meeting only if May would rule out the prospect of a “no-deal” Brexit: Britain leaving the EU without a trade agreement. The leader of the Liberal Democratic Party concurred, and the Scottish National Party called for talks on holding a “people’s vote,” a new referendum on leaving the EU. The prime minister’s office, meanwhile, preemptively ruled out one potential compromise favored by Labour and some pro-Remain conservatives: keeping Britain in a customs union with Europe under a so-called “Norway-style” arrangement. It’s also looking increasingly likely that Britain will have to ask European leaders for an extension of the current March 29 Brexit deadline.
If no further action is taken before then, the default is that Britain will exit without a deal.
Despite the denials and ultimatums from all sides, a host of alternative paths forward—including a softer Norway-style Brexit, a no-deal Brexit, and a new referendum—are all very real possibilities. It also seems possible the deadline could be extended and British politicians will continue to debate the intricacies of the Irish backstop until Earth is engulfed by the sun. Theresa May will probably still be prime minister when that happens.