Briefing battle begins over meaning of May's victory

Allies hail a decisive win but rebels point to backbench majority against prime minister

Within a minute of Graham Brady announcing that Theresa May had seen off a no-confidence vote, the cramped corridor outside the room where the result was read filled with MPs from both sides of the debate, all briefing furiously – and all claiming vindication for their side.

“It’s a victory, and not a close victory,” the justice secretary, David Gauke, said. “It’s a comfortable victory. We’ve had an election and a majority backing the prime minister. This has been hanging over her for months and months. There has been an attempt, and it’s failed.”

Immediately afterwards, and 10 yards down the corridor, Mark Francois, the deputy leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG), was giving the 200 to 117 margin a very different perspective.

Asked if the ERG had failed in its mission to oust May, Francois said: “I wouldn’t call 117 votes a busted flush. Over a third of the parliamentary party, in a secret ballot, voted against the prime minister as their leader, and over half of backbenchers. For any prime minister that is an incredibly sobering result.”

Asked if this meant he felt May should step down, Francois hinted she should: “We all need to go and get a decent night’s sleep and look at it afresh in the morning. But if you’re a PM and a third of your MPs vote against you, that is very bad news.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chairman of the ERG, said the result was terrible for Theresa May and called on her to resign. He told the BBC: “It’s a terrible result for the prime minister, it really is.”

With the “payroll vote” of ministers, parliamentary aides and trade envoys all likely to have backed Mrs May, a majority of the remaining 160-170 backbenchers voted no confidence in her, he said. “Of course I accept this result, but the prime minister must realise that under all constitutional norms, she ought to go to see the Queen urgently and resign.”

The scale of the attempt to spin the result as a resounding victory was, however, on a larger scale. As the result was announced, the bulk of the 80 or so Tory MPs in the room stood up and cheered.

“Now it’s time for everyone in the party to unite behind the prime minister and allow her to get on with what is a hugely important job for this country,” said Damian Green, her former deputy and still a close ally.

Asked if the rebels should now be quiet, Green said: “That’s a matter for them. I hope so. It would be sensible. We’ve had a vote, the result was decisive, therefore people, as democrats, should accept that result.”

Also out selling the May message was the education secretary, Damian Hinds, who emphasised that she was not thinking about quitting. “One thing the PM has in spades is determination,” he said. “And the number of times people have doubted her, and she’s done it time after time after time.”

The reaction from other parties was predicable. In a rapidly sent response, Jeremy Corbyn said May had “lost her majority in parliament, her government is in chaos, and she is unable to deliver a Brexit deal that works for the country and puts jobs and the economy first”. Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable said the impasse meant May should back a second referendum.


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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