Updated at 3:03 p.m. ET
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is fighting to keep her job as members of her Conservative Party seek to oust her in a no-confidence vote Wednesday. May has been unable to shore up support for the draft Brexit deal she negotiated with the European Union.
“I will contest that vote with everything I’ve got,” May said outside of No. 10 Downing St. The result of the vote on her party leadership is expected around 9 p.m. local time (4 p.m. ET).
“If she wins, she can serve for another year without another challenge from her party,” NPR’s Frank Langfitt reports from London. “If she loses, this triggers a leadership contest within the Conservative Party. The winner of that contest would not immediately become prime minister, and there could be heavy pressure to call a general election.”
With all eyes now on the U.K. Parliament, there is speculation over what the outcome might bring. Below, you can watch the proceedings in the House of Commons earlier Wednesday, as the prime minister answered lawmakers’ questions.
If May loses her leadership post, it could trigger a “no-deal” exit when the U.K. leaves the EU on March 29, meaning the country would have few formal trading mechanisms in place to interact with the bloc it has belonged to for decades.
“Traditionally, winning a no-confidence vote by a small margin might force a Conservative leader to step down anyway,” Langfitt reports, “but the United Kingdom is facing its biggest political crisis in decades, and past traditions seem to no longer apply.”
To survive as prime minister, May must get the votes of at least 159 Conservative members of Parliament. The target number rose slightly on Wednesday, after her Tories reinstated two members of Parliament who had been suspended from their party.
Andrew Griffiths had been suspended since July over hundreds of lewd and profane texts the married lawmaker sent to two women who work at a bar. Griffiths, who apologized, plans to vote for May, Derbyshire Live reports. Charlie Elphicke was suspended in November 2017, after allegations of rape and sexual harassment were made against him. The police have been investigating Elphicke, who said Wednesday, “I remain as confident as I always have been of clearing my name.” He did not reveal how he would vote.
May is expected to emerge from the vote with her position intact. But some uncertainty persists — in large part because the vote will be by secret ballot. According to the BBC, nearly 190 lawmakers from May’s party have publicly stated their intention to vote for her.
If May loses, the Conservatives would hold a leadership election to select her replacement. As the head of the largest party in Parliament, the new leader would then be asked by Queen Elizabeth II to form a new government. If they were unable, then the opposition Labour Party would have a chance to do so. And if neither succeeded, a new general election would be called.
During the prime minister’s question time in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Conservative Member of Parliament Ken Clarke called the potential leadership shuffle an extra burden during a time of national crisis.
“Can my right honorable friend think of anything more unhelpful, irrelevant and irresponsible than for the Conservative Party to embark on weeks of a Conservative leadership election?” Clarke asked May.
The prime minister replied that a potential new election would likely extend well into January, meaning that “the new leader — were a new leader to come in — that one of the first things they would have to do would be to either extend Article 50 or rescind Article 50, and that would mean either delaying or stopping Brexit.”
Article 50 is the exit clause in the EU’s constitutional rules; it’s the law May invoked in March 2017, setting up this March’s Brexit deadline.
The call for a vote on May’s political fate comes two days after she delayed a crucial vote on the nearly 600-page Brexit deal she negotiated with the EU, acknowledging that the draft agreement had no chance of being approved in Parliament.
May left Britain on Tuesday to meet with European leaders, hoping to get help in changing the deal enough to win over the doubters back home. Nevertheless, she returned empty-handed — but not before being briefly trapped in her own car as German Chancellor Angela Merkel looked on. The moment, which saw the British leader struggling to get out of a German sedan with an apparently sticky door, was called both awkward and symbolic of her own trials in office.
The process of reaching a final Brexit deal has foundered, in large part, on the complicated and essential question of how the U.K. and EU will treat Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member), short of enforcing a hard border. Roughly a third of May’s draft Brexit agreement (or 170 pages) is devoted to the topic, according to the House of Commons Library.
Conservatives who object to May’s Brexit deal submitted their no-confidence letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, a group that represents the Conservatives’ rank-and-file membership. On Wednesday morning it was announced that they had cleared the 48-letter threshold necessary to trigger the vote.
Still, George Parker, political editor for the Financial Times, recently told NPR that the prime minister seems to be more popular than her Brexit deal:
“She’s dogged. She’s determined. She’s got a real sense of duty. And it’s interesting that although the Brexit deal she’s negotiated seems to upset just about everyone, she herself has actually gone up in the public estimation over the last few weeks. I think people see her standing there hour after hour in the bear pit at the House of Commons being attacked by people on her own side — mainly men, it has to be said. And I think it — her sort of doggedness actually resonates with people.
“So although she’s often seen as rather an unimaginative politician and just really blundering her way through this Brexit morass, in the end, people quite respect the fact that she’s still there and she’s still standing.”
Both May and her political opponents have had an eye on the clock as the March 29 deadline approaches, with each side seeking to put pressure on the other to make concessions. And in the background, there has been a recognition that the Brexit process will not be a tidy and painless process, no matter who’s in charge.
When asked Tuesday about a possible no-confidence vote, Parker said, “it will solve nothing. It will be an act of huge and damaging self-indulgence, I think.”