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16 January 2019

Confidence expressed, now let’s work together

Brexit, Government Affairs

Conservative Government survives Parliamentary vote of no confidence                                          

Prime Minister surprises House of Commons and invites Jeremy Corbyn for talks on Brexit 

Twenty-four hours after an unprecedented humiliation at the hands of 118 of her own MPs, Mrs May has won this evening’s vote of no confidence in her Government. Last night her Party rounded on her Brexit deal, gave it a good kicking, and told her to go away and do better. This evening, such is the tribal nature of British politics, they rallied around her, and in the process, saw off the immediate threat of a General Election. In an unexpected move Mrs May invited Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and other opposition leaders to meet with her tonight, and in the days ahead, to discuss a way forward. Mr Corbyn appeared to make talks conditional on the PM ruling out a no deal Brexit.

What has happened?

  • As was widely expected, the Prime Minister won this evening’s vote of no confidence in her Government brought by Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, by 325 to 306, a majority of 19.
  • Despite a record-breaking defeat on her Brexit deal last night, the rebels in her own Party and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on whom she relies for her Parliamentary majority, backed the PM.
  • In a dramatic attempt to seize the political initiative the PM immediately offered talks on a way forward with all the opposition Party leaders, beginning tonight.
  • Jeremy Corbyn for Labour and Ed Davey for the Liberal Democrats made their participation contingent on the PM taking a no deal Brexit off the table. Ian Blackford for the Scottish Nationalists welcomed the opportunity to work constructively with the Government but with significant caveats.
  • Pressure is growing on the Labour leadership to back a second referendum because the Government’s survival tonight rules out, for the time being, an early General Election.
  • Both the PM and her official spokesman today emphasised that any Brexit Plan B should not involve UK membership of a Customs Union, or indeed the continued free movement of people. Both have been consistent red lines in the Prime Minister’s negotiating stance and underpinned her now defeated Brexit deal.
  • However, in a sign of tensions at the heart of her Government, she was today contradicted by at least one Cabinet Minister around potential flexibility on the Customs Union. 

What comes next?

  • The Prime Minister is safe in her position, for now at least.
  • The PM has said she will now seek to identify an approach to Brexit that could command both the support of MPs, and the EU – having pledged to hold cross Party talks over the next few days. She had been expected to confine those talks to senior back-benchers of all parties but offered talks tonight and in the days ahead with Jeremy Corbyn and other opposition leaders.
  • Jeremy Corbyn made his participation contingent on committing to removing the prospect of a no deal Brexit.
  • The cross-party talks are aimed at clarifying one question asked by multiple European leaders last night: what do you Brits want?
  • After these talks, the Prime Minister will present MPs with a Brexit Plan B on Monday (21 January).
  • She will lay down an amendable motion detailing how the Government will proceed. Votes on that motion and amendments are expected to follow later that week.
  • That this motion is amendable is critical, as it will allow MPs the opportunity to make it clear if there is any alternative plan for Brexit that can command majority support.
  • We therefore expect to see a series of amendments laid down by those backing a range of options – a second referendum, a Norway Style agreement more closely aligned to the EU, a looser free trade arrangement (the Canada model), and inevitably amendments from those who support no deal Brexit.
  • The Government will then schedule a vote on their Plan B motion, and the possible amendments to it. After this we may have a clearer sense of what kind of an approach has the most support among MPs.
  • The Prime Minister is not expected to travel to Brussels for talks with EU leaders until after the cross-party talks are complete. She hopes to have a clear sense from MPs as to what they want before she seeks further compromise with, and concessions from, European Leaders.

Why does it matter?

  • For securing consensus in Westminster:  
    • Last night’s vote rejecting the PM’s deal takes, for the time being at least, one Brexit option off the table, meaning that Mrs May must explore what alternatives might pass. But the clock is still ticking, and so pressure will grow for the Government to seek an extension of Article 50 in order to avoid the UK leaving without a deal.
    • The price of Labour cooperation, and that of pro-European Tory rebels, would likely, at a minimum, involve a softer Brexit – a commitment to seek membership of a post-Brexit Customs Union with the EU. While the Justice Secretary David Gauke has said that the Government will likely have to be flexible on a Customs Union, the Prime Minister has always ruled this out.
    • This process forces MPs to be clearer about what they want, rather than just stating what they do not want. Only then might we start to see solutions capable of breaking the Brexit impasse. However, if no such consensus exists, then the PM is likely to return to MPs with a largely unchanged offer.
  • For securing concessions from Brussels:
  • The EU still do not know what Britain wants. Until that changes it is all but impossible for the EU to offer any meaningful concessions or clarifications.
  • But the clock is ticking. MEPs have already begun the process of ratification of the existing Withdrawal Agreement and unless the UK makes its position clear – or requests an extension of Article 50 – then time will run out.
  • For Labour – and a second referendum
    • Labour policy states that if the Party cannot secure an early General Election, support for a second referendum must be among the options that the Party then considers.
    • Team Corbyn maintain the policy is more nuanced. They argue that Labour must consider a range of options, and that it “isn’t automatic” that the Party would support a second referendum.
    • However, 71 Labour MPs today wrote to Mr Corbyn urging him to back a second referendum. It is reported that 77% of Labour Members back a “Peoples Vote”.
    • Corbyn is fiercely opposed to a second referendum and is seeking to kick the can down the road in an effort to avoid a fight within his own Party. Which is why he has floated the idea of tabling multiple confidence motions in the Government.
    • However, tonight he appears to have run out of road. The smaller opposition Parties – the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party – are reportedly preparing to tell Corbyn they will not back any further Labour no confidence motions.
    • Corbyn would then have no way of forcing a General Election, potentially leaving him with little option but to back a second referendum.

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