It was an attempt to set the narrative, but it quite simply failed. I was struck by the complete contrast between tonight's proceedings and the aftermath of another Tory leadership challenge many years ago. In 1995, just like today, people were fairly sure that the incumbent leader would be officially re-elected, but the question was always the margin of victory. In the end, rather more MPs voted against John Major than had been anticipated, but it didn't matter because the rebels grudgingly acknowledged his mandate after the result had been announced. The complete opposite happened tonight - the ERG doubled down and demanded that May should resign. Jacob Rees-Mogg may be a buffoon, but the way he laid down a marker within seconds of the result being revealed was an absolute masterclass. "The vast majority of non-payroll MPs voted against her" was exactly the angle to take, and it's a point that's very difficult for May loyalists to shut down. It's impossible for them to argue that May doesn't need the support of backbenchers. If they try to claim she still has that support, by definition that would have to mean that a substantial number of government ministers secretly voted against her, which would be even worse.
The counter-framing from the May camp was much less convincing than Rees-Mogg's effort. The pre-prepared line that had obviously been given to everyone was that May's percentage of the vote was higher than when she was elected leader in 2016. That's a complete nonsense, because she wasn't actually "elected leader" at all. The members' ballot was called off when Andrea Leadsom withdrew, and May became leader by default. The contest didn't progress beyond a three-way preliminary ballot of MPs, and nobody would really expect any candidate to get 63% of the vote when they have two opponents. (Although as it happened she got close.)
The other thing that struck me tonight is that anyone who's been thinking there's a non-trivial chance that a "People's Vote" might somehow take place under Theresa May's watch should just forget that idea. She has a weak renewed mandate, and it was won largely on the promise that she will "deliver the Brexit people voted for". She is even more boxed in than she was before, and for however long she remains Prime Minister, a referendum with a "Remain" option is inconceivable. If the assumption is that she will still be around on March 29th, Remainers should probably switch their focus to securing an extension of Article 50 - because if that doesn't happen, Britain will undoubtedly be leaving the European Union.
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