LONDON — Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, survived the gravest threat yet to her embattled leadership on Wednesday, winning a party confidence vote and averting a leadership battle that threatened to plunge the country into prolonged crisis.
But the victory celebration, if any, is likely to be short-lived.
While Mrs. May survived to fight another day, the future of her stalled plan to leave the European Union looked bleaker than ever.
She still lacks the votes in Parliament to pass it. She stands little chance of winning the concessions from Europe that she needs to break the logjam.
And the surprisingly strong vote against her within her own party underscores the difficulty she faces in winning approval for any plan for Britain to leave Europe, or Brexit, as the deadline for withdrawal looms.
For one moment, however, after a week of humiliating setbacks, the prime minister could savor her win.
“Here is our renewed mission,” she said outside her offices at 10 Downing Street after the vote on Wednesday. “Delivering the Brexit that people voted for, bringing the country back together and building a country that truly works for everyone.”
But even that moment was tempered by loss.
Mrs. May won the vote only after promising that she would step aside soon after the Brexit agonies were over, according to reports from a meeting of Conservative Party lawmakers preceding the vote. That pledge removed the generally unwelcome possibility that she would stand as party leader in the next general election.
Mrs. May, said George Freeman, a Conservative lawmaker, had made clear “that she has listened, heard and respects the will of the party that once she has delivered an orderly Brexit, she will step aside for the election of a new leader.”
In the vote on Wednesday, on a confidence motion called by her own Conservative Party, Mrs. May won the support of 200 Conservative lawmakers, while 117 voted against her. The protest vote exceeded many forecasts, and is expected to compound her difficulties in Parliament, where her enemies were already pressuring her.
“This was a terrible result for the prime minister,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leader of the hard-line pro-Brexit faction.
The vote does give her some breathing room. Under the Conservative Party’s rules, she cannot be challenged again by her own lawmakers for another year, which at least offers some stability for moving the Brexit plan forward. Had she lost, the Conservatives would have been thrust into a divisive, drawn-out process that would have stretched well into the next month.
The delay would have threatened the country’s ability to reach a deal by the March deadline, potentially resulting in the messy prospect of a no-deal Brexit.
Nevertheless the victory came at a price, laying bare the opposition within her own party ranks to Mrs. May, who leads a government that has no parliamentary majority.
The confidence vote was called after weeks of discord when at least 48 Conservative lawmakers submitted the letters of protest required to force it. Mrs. May canceled a trip to Dublin where she had hoped to talk to her Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, about changes that might help build support in the British Parliament for her Brexit proposals.
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But it had already been clear that she was in deep political trouble, battered from multiple directions by her management of the European Union withdrawal. In particular, many hard-line Brexit supporters within her party believed she was not making a complete enough break with the bloc.
In recent days, she suffered two embarrassing setbacks. Last week, the House of Commons voted her government in contempt of Parliament — the first time any prime minister had been censured in that way — for failing to release the advice her government’s lawyers had given on Brexit.
And on Monday, she postponed a vote on the Brexit agreement she had negotiated with the European Union, acknowledging that it stood to be defeated by “a significant margin.” In fact, lawmakers say, views on the topic, which has dominated British politics for nearly three years, are so fragmented that no approach has majority support in Parliament, and probably not even among Conservatives.
Mrs. May argued Wednesday morning that the only beneficiaries of a vote of no confidence would be the opposition Labour Party.
Having survived it, she now faces an uphill task to garner sufficient support for her withdrawal agreement with the European Union, a lengthy legal document that Brussels has warned is the only deal on the table.
John Springford, deputy director of the Center for European Reform, a London-based research institute, said that the size of the vote against her “is an even clearer signal that she won’t be able to get her deal through Parliament, and makes it even more likely that when she puts the deal to the vote she will lose that.”
On Thursday she is scheduled to travel to Brussels to meet leaders of the 27 other European Union countries to try to secure some reassurances that might help her win a vote on the Brexit plans. She has promised to allow lawmakers to decide the matter by Jan. 21. If there is no agreement then, Britain could be facing a chaotic departure on March 29.
Or not. There could be a second referendum, a mutually agreed extension of the negotiating period or even, as Mrs. May has warned her party, no Brexit at all. What does not seem to be in the cards, for now, at least, is the general election that the opposition Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been angling for throughout the Brexit process.
While Mrs. May has maintained a public face of optimism over securing some pledges from the European Union intended to reassure her own lawmakers, she is unlikely to win any game-changing concessions.
Her strategy appears to be to delay the critical vote — now probably in the middle of January — and to hope that the growing risk of a disorderly departure brings some lawmakers back into line. But many doubt that will work.
“Clearly, her last throw of the dice is count down the clock and try to bounce people into voting for it,” Mr. Springford said. “But I am not convinced she will win that vote. I don’t think that she can get meaningful concessions from the European Union that would be enough to get her over the line.
“The best hope is that everybody calms down over Christmas, that they start to really worry about no deal, and that some more moderate people signal that they will support her. But everyone is now so high up their pole that I am not sure they can climb down.”
In Brussels, diplomats said they could see little benefit from Mrs. May’s travails, and that no new British leader would be able to change the fundamentals of the 585-page divorce agreement negotiated so painfully.
That applies to the so-called backstop that the pro-Brexit lawmakers are particularly incensed about. That provision would insure the free movement of goods over the Irish border in the event that a free-trade agreement is not reached in the two-year transition period after Brexit. What is especially galling for the Brexiteers is that it would continue indefinitely, or until the European Union decides it is no longer needed.
The main fear is that there is no majority in Parliament for any kind of Brexit deal, one diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity according to diplomatic protocol.
“Even the funny elements of this are actually tragic,” said another diplomat. “I still hope Beckett, Kafka and Havel are not those who will finish writing this piece.”