Theresa May has seen off an attempt by rebel backbenchers to oust her as Conservative leader and Prime Minister.
But she sowed the seeds for her eventual departure by telling Tory MPs that she would not lead the party into the next general election, expected in 2022
The Prime Minister won a confidence vote of the 317 Conservative MPs by a margin of 200 to 117 in a secret ballot at Westminster.
The vote was triggered by party grandee Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, early on Wednesday after he received letters of no confidence in the PM from at least 15% of the parliamentary party.
In a day of high drama, a defiant Mrs May vowed to fight “with everything I’ve got” to defend her position, warning that a change in prime minister might mean Brexit being delayed or halted.
In an early-morning statement outside 10 Downing Street, Mrs May said that securing a Brexit deal which will deliver on the result of the 2016 referendum was “now within our grasp” and said she was “making progress” in securing reassurances from EU leaders on MPs’ concerns about the proposed backstop for the Irish border.
Every MP in her Cabinet swiftly issued statements of support and she was greeted by loud cheers from the Tory backbenches when she faced the House of Commons for her weekly session of Prime Minister’s Questions.
Addressing assembled MPs at a meeting of the 1922 Committee moments before the crucial vote, Mrs May said that she accepted she could not fight the next election as their leader.
Solicitor general Robert Buckland told reporters: “She said ‘In my heart I would like to lead the party into the next election’ and then that was the introductory phrase to her indication that she would accept the fact that that would not happen, that is not her intention.”
And, 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”.
And 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”.
Anger over the backstop among Tory backbenchers and their Democratic Unionist Party allies was the main obstacle to Mrs May getting her Brexit deal through the House of Commons earlier this week.
Her decision to defer the vote sparked a new wave of letters of no confidence which pushed the total beyond the threshold of 48 needed to trigger a ballot.
By the time of the vote, Mrs May’s survival looked assured, with the tally of Tory MPs publicly declaring they would support her passing the threshold of 159 needed to secure her position.
Proud to have voted in support of the PM, thank you to the many people who have contacted my office today to urge me to do just that pic.twitter.com/pF5ChA4xHh
— Margot James (@margot_james_mp) December 12, 2018
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.
So even if she wins this duck is lame https://t.co/EIpnWxlmo3
— David Hanson (@DavidHansonMP) December 12, 2018
And Labour MPs branded her a “lame duck” PM because of her decision to pre-announce her departure.