LONDON — Hard-liners in Britain’s governing Conservative Party have so dominated debate over withdrawal from the European Union for the past two years that when they called last week for the overthrow of Prime Minister Theresa May, failure did not occur to them as a possibility.
But on Tuesday the so-called coup against May was on hold — for now, anyway — after the plotters admitted having been misled by their own supporters, who had melted away.
The setback for the hard-liners is some rare good news for May, who is fighting for her political life, battling to quell a rebellion within her party and her Cabinet over draft plans for a withdrawal, or Brexit, that would maintain some close ties to the European Union.
Those who want a no-confidence vote in May need letters of support from 48 Conservative lawmakers, and their struggle to assemble that number has been portrayed as symptomatic of the incompetence of many hard-line Brexiteer proponents, including those in government, several of whom have quit the Cabinet.
“Their record is an uninterrupted litany of cowardice, incompetence, and blame shifting,” Robert Shrimsley wrote in a column for the Financial Times. “For all the bluster, they have blinked, bottled, or botched it at every turn.”
Yet May is far from safe. The Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland, whose 10 lawmakers prop up the government, on Monday refused to support it in parliamentary votes, a calculated message to the prime minister.
And while her Conservative critics may have retreated in some embarrassment, they still hope to oust her next month, if not in the coming days.
The move against May began last week: While she was speaking to television cameras outside Parliament, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chairman of a group of pro-Brexit lawmakers, demanded the no-confidence vote, and newspapers confidently predicted that the 48 letters would be submitted by Monday.
Surrounded again by television crews on Tuesday, but with no sign that the total had been reached, the tone was more defensive. Rees-Mogg batted away suggestions that he had been humiliated.
“Patience is a virtue, virtue is a grace, etc.,” said Rees-Mogg, who quoted a British nursery rhyme to reporters. “We shall see whether letters come in due time.”
To her hard-line enemies, May’s Brexit blueprint is a betrayal of a 2016 referendum decision to quit the bloc. They want a cleaner break with continental Europe’s economic structures so that Britain is free to make its own trade deals. Under the draft agreement, that might not be possible for several years, if ever.
Provided that they are signed off by European leaders on Sunday, May’s plans will face their ultimate test in a vote in Parliament, probably early next month, and the arithmetic currently looks difficult for May.
Rees-Mogg said that some in the pro-Brexit faction calculated that they had a better prospect of toppling her after Parliament has considered — and they hope rejected — her Brexit deal in what is being called the “meaningful vote” on it.
“Do 47 want to come with me or not? I may find that they don’t, or that they don’t do it today but they do it when we get the meaningful vote,” Rees-Mogg said, adding that because of the leadership election rules, more would join later, or risk keeping May as their long-term leader.
Now is the time to move against May, he said, “or the prime minister will lead the Conservatives into the next election.”
May seems to have seen off the imminent threat of more Cabinet resignations, following two last week — though, again, there is no guarantee that the truce is anything more than temporary.
But if she is to win her big Brexit vote, she probably needs to mend fences with the Democratic Unionist Party and calm the mood among Conservative lawmakers, many of whom could still support a move to oust her.