U.K. PM Theresa May survives non-confidence vote on her leadership amid Brexit turmoil

British Prime Minister Theresa May has survived a vote of non-confidence triggered by strong Brexiteers within her own Conservative Party. Members of Parliament voted 200 to 117 by secret ballot to support May, who told them ahead of the vote that she will not lead the party into the next election, expected in 2022.  

She did not say what she will do if, as many expect, there is an early U.K. election triggered by Britain's Brexit crisis. 

Following the result, May said she was pleased to have received the backing of her colleagues, but she acknowledged that a significant number of them voted against her. She said she has listened to them and that it is now time to get on with delivering Brexit. 

"We now need to get on with the job of delivering Brexit for the British people and building a better future for this country," she said. "A Brexit that delivers on the votes that people gave. That brings back control of our money, our borders, and our laws. That protects jobs, security and the union. That brings the country back together rather than entrenching division."

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May used the hour before the vote to try to win over members of her own party. (Mark Duffy/UK Parliament via Associated Press)

May, who spent Tuesday touring European Union capitals to appeal for changes to sweeten her divorce deal for reluctant U.K. lawmakers, has until Jan. 21 to hold a vote on the agreement in Parliament. 

She could still face a challenge in Parliament if the opposition Labour Party seeks a broader non-confidence vote in the House of Commons.

Following the vote result, Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn said Britain's Parliament now needs to regain control of the Brexit process.

"Tonight's vote makes no difference to the lives of our people," Corbyn said in a statement. "She must now bring her dismal deal back to the House of Commons next week so Parliament can take back control."

One of the major sources of contention with the divorce agreement has been the so-called backstop, which aims to ensure there is no hard land border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, an EU member. Many U.K. legislators fear the backstop will leave Britain subject indefinitely to EU rules, long after the country has given up a say in drafting them.

May said before the vote that it was "now clear" the backstop needs to be temporary, and that she was confident she could still win approval in Parliament for her withdrawal plan with further assurances from the EU.

Pro-Brexit demonstrators wear tape accross their mouths and hold placards outside the Houses of Parliament in London. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

However, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, has already indicated the withdrawal agreement is not up for renegotiation for European Union leaders.

"We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop," he tweeted Monday. "But we are ready to discuss how to facilitate U.K. ratification. As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a no-deal scenario."

Tusk said Brexit would be discussed at a summit of EU leaders Dec. 13 and 14.

Anti-Brexit protesters wave flags outside the Houses of Parliament. (Tim Ireland/Associated Press)

The leadership challenge marked an eruption of the Conservative Party's decades-long divide over Europe and threw Britain's already rocky path out of the EU, which it is due to leave on March 29, into further chaos. It came just  days after May postponed a vote to approve the divorce deal to avoid all-but-certain defeat.

Many supporters of Brexit say May's deal, a compromise that retains close economic ties with the EU, fails to deliver on the clean break with the bloc that they want.

Former U.K.Environment Secretary Owen Paterson accused May of acting like a "supplicant" in dealings with the EU.

"She's not the person to see Brexit through," he said.

Opposition lawmakers expressed astonishment and outrage at the Conservative civil war erupting in the middle of the fraught Brexit process.

"This government is a farce, the Tory party is in chaos, the prime minister is a disgrace," Scottish National Party leader Ian Blackford said in the House of Commons hours before the secret ballot.

British business figures expressed alarm at the prospect of even more political uncertainty.

"At one of the most pivotal moments for the U.K. economy in decades, it is unacceptable that Westminster politicians have chosen to focus on themselves, rather than on the needs of the country," said Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce.

Graham Brady, Chairman of the Conservative Party 1922 Committee, speaks to the media after announcing that the Conservative Party will hold a vote of non-confidence in the prime minister. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

The non-confidence vote was triggered after Graham Brady, who heads a committee overseeing Conservative leadership contests, announced early Wednesday that he had received letters from at least 48 lawmakers asking for a vote. That's the 15 per cent of Conservative legislators needed to spark a leadership challenge under party rules.

With this victory, May's leadership cannot be challenged again for a year.

European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier attends a meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels Nov. 12. (Stephanie Lecocq/Pool via Reuters)

EU leaders tried to stay out of the fray. There was no change in plans for May to address them about Brexit at a summit on Brussels on Thursday.

The European Parliament's Brexit point man, Guy Verhofstadt, could not contain a note of annoyance, tweeting: "Once again, the fate of EU-U.K. relations, the prosperity of businesses & citizens' rights are consumed by an internal Conservative party catfight over Europe."

Brexit is Britain's most significant political and economic decision since the Second World War, though pro-Europeans fear the departure will weaken the West as it grapples with the presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.

The outcome will shape Britain's $ 2.8 trillion US economy, have far reaching consequences for the unity of the United Kingdom, and determine whether London can keep its place as one of the top two global financial centres.

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