Operation Save Theresa: How Twitter helped keep the Prime Minister in No10 in a dramatic 24 hours in British politics
The Downing Street switchboard logged the call at 10.35pm on Tuesday. It was Sir Graham Brady for the Prime Minister. It was bad news.
The chairman of the 1922 committee confirmed what the Westminster rumour mill had suggested hours earlier – that 48 MPs had lodged letters of no confidence in the PM and that she would therefore face a vote by the Parliamentary party. If a majority voted against her, she was out.
Mrs May told Sir Graham she was ‘keen to get on with it and settle the matter’.
Theresa May (pictured above) was backed by a margin of 200 to 117 in a no-confidence ballot
It was a brutal end to a gruelling day. The PM had arrived back at RAF Northolt at 9pm after visiting the Hague, where she met Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Berlin for a meeting with Chancellor Merkel and then Brussels to meet EU Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker – as she tried to gain assurances over the Northern Ireland backstop that might persuade Tory rebels to back the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement.
The whistlestop tour came after she had pulled the vote on the Brexit deal on Monday, knowing that she faced a heavy defeat. Now she was fighting for her political life.
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No 10 strikes back
Yesterday the first meeting in No.10 began at 7am – an hour earlier than usual. At 7.40am Sir Graham issued a press release confirming the no confidence vote would be held. An hour later Mrs May stood in Downing Street and vowed to fight ‘with everything I’ve got’.
She set out several arguments to convince wavering MPs. Firstly, she warned, no new leader could be in place before January 21, the date by which the ‘meaningful vote’ on the Withdrawal Agreement is due to take place. This would mean handing control of negotiations to opposition MPs – who could force an even softer Brexit, or a second referendum. Mrs May also warned it could result in Britain’s departure date under Article 50 being either delayed or put off indefinitely.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid (pictured above) was driven out the Houses of Parliament following no confidence vote to Prime Minister Theresa May
And she said a leadership contest would see the party spend ‘weeks tearing ourselves apart… just as we should be standing together to serve our country.’ She added: ‘The only people whose interests would be served are Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.’
No time to lose
The realisation that she would face a vote of no confidence was a blow, but it was not wholly unexpected. In mid-November Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chairman of the European Research Group (ERG) of hardline Brexiteers publicly called for Mrs May to go.
That coup attempt failed miserably, but by signalling his intent he handed Downing Street one crucial advantage: time to prepare. Aides began planning how to manage a no confidence vote.
By contrast, the rebels appeared disorganised. At least one member of the ERG was reported to be ‘furious’ at the speed with which the vote was called – they had expected it to be next Monday, giving more time to prepare.
The rules of the 1922 committee say a vote should be held soon as practically possible, so Sir Graham was well within his rights to go quickly. The quick vote also suited No 10. Senior aides who discussed timing on Tuesday concluded it would have been impossible to go to the EU Council on Thursday to try and extract concessions from EU leaders with the vote ‘hanging over our heads’.
Michael Gove (pictured above) leaving the Houses of Parliament in Westminster
The Downing Street machine went into overdrive. Loyalist MPs took to TV and radio stations to hammer home the PM’s message, following the lead of Justice Secretary David Gauke, who appeared on the all-important 8.10am interview slot on Radio 4’s Today programme. No 10 hammered MPs with polling data. It showed two-thirds of Tory councillors wanted Mrs May to stay and three-quarters of Tory voters want her to see through Brexit.
The public don’t believe rivals would get a better deal, by three to one. Internal party polling also revealed three-quarters of Tory voters say it is the ‘wrong time to change Prime Minister’ and that Mrs May is the most popular leader among Tory voters of all potential candidates.
British Secretary for International Development Penny Mordaunt (pictured above)
Twitter takes off
On social media, the Cabinet swung in behind Mrs May and other ministers followed. Within minutes of Sir Graham announcing the vote, party chairman Brandon Lewis tweeted his support for Mrs May, saying the party had a ‘duty to deliver for our country’.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd – all seen as potential leadership candidates – followed with supportive tweets within the next 20 minutes.
Business Secretary Greg Clark tweeted to say he admired Mrs May’s ‘grit and determination’ and Michael Gove said he was backing her ‘100 per cent’.
Jeremy Hunt (pictured above) had a glum expression on his face when leaving Parliament
At 10am Julian Smith, the chief whip, also tweeted his support. The only ministers not to tweet, including Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright, do not have personal Twitter accounts.
One of last to declare his support was Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, who was in No 10 and did not have his phone. Meanwhile, the battle was being fought in the corridors of the House of Commons. The whips, charged with enforcing discipline , were arm-twisting and cajoling potential rebels and also went to work on their ‘flocks’ of MPs, feeding back the voting numbers to Smith
There was a notable absence of new opponents declaring they would not vote for May. Former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson announced his intention to do so on Tuesday night, and Sir Bernard Jenkin on Wednesday morning, but neither declaration was a big surprise. More worrying for No 10 were those MPs said to be ‘making up their minds’.
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd (pictured above) leaves parliament on December 12
Some MPs pointed to one factor in play other than high principle: Christmas. One loyalist said, voice dripping with sarcasm: ‘Obviously in many ways I’d rather have a hugely acrimonious leadership contest over Christmas. But also in many ways not.’
Some interventions by ministers were unhelpful. Chancellor Philip Hammond said the vote would ‘flush out the extremists’ behind an agenda for Brexit which would damage Britain – a comment Mrs May later contradicted. Plymouth MP Johnny Mercer – a critic of the Government but not a Brexiteer – called it ‘woefully misjudged’.
Sir Graham Brady (centre), chairman of the 1922 Committee, and flanked by Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (left), Bob Blackman, and Cheryl Gillian (right), announced that Theresa May survived an attempt by Tory MPs to oust her as party leader with a motion of no confidence at the Houses of Parliament in London
The same Cabinet ministers who were publicly eviscerating their colleagues for not supporting the PM were, at the same time, phoning MPs to gather support for their own leadership bids, he claimed.
Arch-Remainer Anna Soubry accused Boris Johnson of being a ‘great charlatan’ and of ‘cruising around the tea rooms’ to gather support. Meanwhile, Labour MPs could barely keep the smiles off their faces. ‘We’re going to have a lunch then come back and put our feet up. Merry Christmas,’ one Labour aide said.
‘A win is a win’
The Prime Minister (left) had met with Mark Rutte (right) on Tuesday to discuss the Brexit deal
Just after lunch, the number of MPs who had publicly declared in Mrs May’s favour was up to 172. This gave officials hope, although they were not counting their chickens. One senior Tory said: ‘This is a sophisticated electorate – some may be lying.’
There was also an elaborate game of ‘managing expectations’. One senior Tory critic of Mrs May said she would have to go if 80 MPs rebelled because she had lost a majority of backbench MPs.
By contrast, one Cabinet minister said she could lose by 100 and still continue as leader. Others insisted ‘a win is a win’ – and she would press on regardless even if she won by one vote.
Mrs May arrived at the Commons in her ministerial car at 11.10am. Her husband, Philip, there for Prime Minister’s Questions, and told the Mail he was ‘very confident’ of victory. Mrs May sailed through PMQs – Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn sounded angry and failed to land a blow.
Then in the post-PMQs briefing of lobby journalists a No 10 aide dropped a bombshell. He said Mrs May ‘doesn’t believe the vote today is about who leads the party to the next election. It’s about whether it’s sensible to change leader at this point in the negotiations’. This was a major signal to MPs that the PM would not seek to fight the next election, due in 2022. It was seen by some as a sign that No 10 was not confident about the vote.
Rebuff from dup
Just after 1pm, Mrs May met with DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds in the PM’s Commons office in an attempt to try to rebuild relations.
Jacob Rees Mogg (pictured above) said he ‘accepted the confidence vote’ but said the PM should resign anyway
The Northern Irish party has all but abandoned its support for the Government over the Northern Irish backstop. After the meeting, Mrs Foster demanded ‘fundamental changes’ to the legal text of the agreement. Several Tory MPs intending to vote against the PM pointed to the collapse of the DUP deal to support the Government – and the loss of its majority in the Commons – being key to their decision.
Shock and tears
Just after 5pm Mrs May made the earlier hint explicit, as she addressed the crunch meeting of Tory MPs in Committee Room 14 – the room where, shortly afterwards, they would vote to decide her fate.
She told them: ‘In my heart I would have loved to have led us into the next election, but I realise that we will need a new leader with new objectives for the 2022 election.’ Sources said the mood in the room was ‘sombre’ and there was ‘shock and a few tears in the eyes’ when she said it.
Cabinet minister Chris Grayling (pictured above) immediately insisted Mrs May would now go to Brussels to try and renegotiate the deal
One Tory MP described it as a ‘powerful and moving moment’ and the PM had ‘listened, heard and respects’ the will of the party. When pressed, Mrs May refused to set a clear date for her departure –as Tony Blair was forced to following the ‘Curry House plot’ in 2006. She also slapped down Mr Hammond for his earlier ‘extremists’ jibe, saying ‘there are no extremists in this party’.
Shortly before 9pm, Sir Graham entered Committee Room 14 – which was packed withMPs, minister and journalists, to announce Mrs May had won. The announcement was greeted with the loud banging of desks by loyalists.
Then Sir Graham announced the result – 200 for and 117 against, meaning more than a third of the party voted against the PM. Cabinet minister Chris Grayling immediately insisted Mrs May would now go to Brussels to try and renegotiate the deal. Allies also pointed out the PM had won more votes than she did in the first round of the leadership contest in 2016. Rees Mogg said he ‘accepted the confidence vote’ but said the PM should resign anyway. Half an hour later outside No 10, a chastened Mrs May accepted it had been a ‘long and challenging day’/
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