Theresa May, who has mismanaged Britain’s exit from the European Union, won her vote of confidence in the House of Commons this week, and now she’s in the hard place the country preacher found himself after winning a vote of confidence to unify his congregation, soothe hurt feelings and make peace with his deacons.
“We won!” the rustic parson cried, announcing the congregational vote. “The vote to retain me as pastor was 47 for and only 46 for finding a new pastor. We’re unified at last.”
There was a similar scene in Commons on Wednesday night, when the vote of confidence on Mrs. May was announced in two installments. When it was announced that she had won, a loud cheer rocked the room, with happy shouts of good humor and even hilarity from her partisans. Then came the actual numbers, 200 votes for the lady, and 117 against.
“That announcement,” as described by John O’Sullivan in National Review Online, “was received with intakes of breath and a surprised silence. The effect was one of shock and alarm. Thursday morning the newspaper headlines reported a Pyrrhic victory for the prime minister that has solved nothing and left most things unsettled. In fact, the vote leaves things more unsettled than before.”
Democracy works in a rough way. The issue at hand is whether Britain abandons a fractious Europe, with its talent for stumbling into wars and squabbles, and go it alone. This recalls the grit and toughness of Churchill times, and grit is scarce in times of turmoil and uncertainty. Rarer still is a Churchill to buck up a faltering national spirit.
No-confidence votes in previous times have often been indicators of doom for prime ministers. Leaving the European Union is particularly divisive in the land, and divisions in the ranks of the Conservatives are deeper and angrier than ever. Brexit, as the British call the exit from Europe, introduces an instability not often seen in Old Blighty. It’s instability that splits parties and changes minds, as Mr. Sullivan observes.
“Compare this result with something of equal weight — namely the vote against Neville Chamberlain in 1940 that led to Winston Churchill in power.” Europe had just lost Norway to the Nazis, but Chamberlain nevertheless won the no-confidence debate, getting 281 votes, 81 more than Mrs. May won in her vote this week. The Chamberlain government was taken for measure in more parlous times than these. The times at hand are hardly that parlous, but the stakes are similar. What kind of nation does Britain want to be?
Britain is said to be in a stalemate now, with the public rattled and confused, with no clear idea of where it wants the country to go. But that might not be true. It may be that only the leadership, and the media, have no clear idea of where to go, or that they just don’t want the country to go where a clear majority of the public wants to go. The elites in Old Blighty, like the elites in America, just can’t get their heads wrapped around the new reality where they no longer rule.
Britain may not be as divided as all that. A new survey of opinion, broken down parliamentary constituency by constituency, demonstrates that in nearly every district there is a clear majority of voters who want to leave Europe, presumably to make Britain great again. (Bulldog, bulldog, rah rah rah.) The conservatives, once beyond the city limits of London, is a party for leaving.
The Tory leadership in their heart of hearts seems to be a constituency for remaining and has been since it was rocked by the vote to leave. Many of the elites seem to believe they have the right and responsibility to ignore that sentiment and find a way around the Leavers, much as the elites here think they have the right and responsibility to ignore verdicts they don’t like.
In the wake of the chaos in her party after the retreat from Brexit, Mrs. May sent her allies out to say that what is obvious to everybody is just not so. Her Transport secretary said the week’s events showed that she “has the support of her party.” The Conservatives “want her to go forward.” But other Brexit members express what seems to be the prevailing opinion now. “If I were her,” says one, “I wouldn’t be pleased at all. I think she needs to think very carefully about what to do now.”
“With news that the prime minister remains in place,” says the director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, “business communities will hope these political games can finally be put to bed.” Not very likely. (The country preacher, by the way, was gone in a week, too.)
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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