Theresa May has won a critical vote of confidence from Conservative MPs, dashing the hopes of Brexiteer rebels who want to end her leadership.
The prime minister was backed by 200 Tory MPs compared to 117 rebels who said they have no confidence in her, following the most dramatic 24 hours yet of the Brexit saga.
While the result bought the prime minister more time, the night ended with her still facing huge opposition and with the Conservative Party’s deep fractures on painful public display.
Ministers and moderate MPs turned on the right-wing European Research Group (ERG) of backbenchers who they blamed for forcing the vote, with one branding them “pompous” and another telling The Independent he was glad they had been made to look “utterly stupid and incompetent”.
In another incident one prominent ERG backbencher refused to stand next to the Conservative deputy chairman James Cleverly for a live television interview.
Ms May committed to finding a “legally binding” solution to the the hated Irish backstop and said she would stand down before the 2022 general election, in a last ditch bid to save her job ahead of the crucial ballot.
The prime minister’s win means she will travel to Brussels on Thursday to attempt to squeeze further concessions from European leaders as she tries to give her Brexit deal more chance of being approved by parliament.
Standing outside Downing Street after the result, Ms May accepted that a “significant” number of Tory MPs had opposed her but said she now wanted to “get on with the job”.
The result was announced to cheers by the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady after two hours counting the vote of every Tory MP – including two who were reinstated earlier in the day having previously had the whip suspended.
Cabinet minister Chris Grayling said the result was “a clear statement” of backing for the PM, while his colleague Damian Hinds said Ms May had been doing an “amazing job”, as they both glossed over the fact that 37 per cent of her MPs, more than a third, voted against her.
One Tory backbencher said: “It’s a win, but not a great one and I don’t know what for really. I don’t know how she is going to get anything done?”
Chair of the ERG Jacob Rees-Mogg told the BBC it was a “terrible” result for the Conservative Party and said Ms May “ought to go and see the Queen urgently and resign”, while deputy chair Mark Francois MP said it was “very bad news” for Ms May.
The announcement ended a day of infighting which saw Tory frustrations boil over, with one Conservative ex-minister telling The Independent: “The ERG have done the party massive harm, for no reason at all, it’s a complete failure.
“At the very least, it’s made them look stupid and utterly incompetent.”
Sarah Wollaston MP, who backs a new referendum on Brexit, said as she cast her vote: “I hope the ERG lose badly and we can see the back of their pompous threats for a year.”
In an awkward moment earlier in the day, Brexiteer Andrew Bridgen MP refused to stand next to Mr Cleverly, one of the most senior party officials and May loyalists, as BBC presenter Victoria Derbyshire interviewed them, while husband and wife MP couple Jack Lopresti and Andrea Jenkyns left parliament saying they had voted in opposite directions.
The scale of Ms May’s task to bring rebel MPs back on side was made clear in a meeting of the 1922 Committee, where one backbencher, David TC Davies, asked why she had done so little to ensure the country is ready for a no-deal Brexit, while another poured scorn on praise for Ms May’s doggedness through her political difficulties, saying: “Stamina is not a strategy.”
The prime minister made two key pledges during the meeting that could be critical in bringing over more MPs to her side, including promising to stand down before the next election.
Afterwards, pensions secretary Amber Rudd said: “She’s made the commitment that I think is what people wanted, but she was very clear that she won’t be taking the general election in 2022.”
Ms May also said she would come back from Brussels with a legally binding solution that would ensure the UK is not indefinitely tied into the backstop – the arrangement that comes into play if no trade deal is set by the end of the Brexit transition period.
Leader of the Tories’ partners in government, the Northern Irish DUP, said minor changes to the withdrawal deal would not be enough to win their support.
Arlene foster said after a meeting with the PM: “We emphasised that tinkering around the edges would not work. We were not seeking assurances or promises. We wanted fundamental legal text changes.”
Ms May will go to the European Council on Thursday where she will have a chance to address other EU member state leaders and, in a rare move, have a broader discussion with them – with negotiations previously channelled through the European Commission.
In his invitation letter to leaders of the EU, European Council president Donald Tusk said “given the seriousness of the situation” Brexit would be discussed.
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