Even by the standards of the past week, Monday afternoon was an odd afternoon in Parliament. Bear with us on this. So, having first threatened to table a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister if she didn’t name the date for a vote on her Brexit deal – only for her to essentially call his bluff and name the week of January 14th – Jeremy Corbyn then completed an extraordinary U-turn and announced that he would table a non-binding motion of no confidence in the PM anyway.
Unlike a formal motion of no confidence in the government – which is governed by the Fixed Term Parliament Act and would have meant a formal vote this week – the government do not have to allow time for Corbyn’s motion to be debated or voted upon. And even if a vote was to be held on it, it would have absolutely no legal or constitutional effect. It’s clear the government won’t grant time for a vote. So less a motion of no confidence, more a motion of no consequence.
Beyond the Corbyn theatrics, we saw some significant movement on Brexit from the EU side, with the European Commission confirming that there would be no renegotiation or further assurances offered, and that no emergency meeting was planned for January.
This sets up a potential Brexit vote where MPs are presented with the choice of either backing Mrs May’s deal or exiting without a deal. MPs across Parliament reacted angrily to this proposition, and it perhaps goes some way towards explaining Labour’s tactics. In truth it would seem when MPs eventually get a vote, they will vote the deal down. With seemingly no majority for any other outcome either we will effectively be in deadlock.
We’ve attempted to unpick the theatrics and explain what happened on another day of drama in Westminster…
The motion of no confidence
Ahead of the Prime Minister’s statement, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn announced that he would table a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister personally (rather than a vote of no confidence in the government, which could have led to a general election) if she failed to name a new date for the Commons vote on her deal.
Unlike a motion of no confidence in the government, a motion of no confidence in the PM does not have any legal or constitutional significance and does not necessarily require a vote to be held. Similarly, the loss of such a vote would not lead to a General Election.
The Prime Minister called Corbyn’s bluff, came to the Commons and announced that the debate on her Brexit deal will resume in the week of the 7th January, with a vote to be held the following week, although she didn’t name an exact day.
Corbyn then closed the debate by confirming that he was immediately tabling a motion of no confidence in the PM anyway.
What does it mean, and how could it work?
Today’s Corbyn motion is distinct from a Parliamentary motion of no confidence in the government, which would require a vote. In the event of the government losing such a vote, then the Labour leader would have two weeks in which to form a government. If he couldn’t then an election would be called.
A motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister, however, has no legal or constitutional significance, and it is, in fact, up to the Government to determine if such a vote should be held. In short, it is a purely symbolic move.
The government has already indicated that it won’t provide Parliamentary time for a debate and vote on Corbyn’s motion.
Last summer Labour forced a confidence vote in the Transport Secretary, Chis Grayling. Labour were able to force a vote on that occasion by using their allocated time for Parliamentary debates. However, as they have no allotted time left for debates this week, they would be unable to force a vote until the New Year.
It’s thought Labour’s next step may involve tabling the more serious formal motion of no confidence in the government, perhaps on Wednesday.
In a rare piece of good news for the PM, Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the hard-line Tory Brexiter ERG faction, declared that having seen off her own MPs challenge last week – a challenge championed by Rees-Mogg himself – Mrs May could now count on his support.
Labour’s tactics it seems, brought about something Mrs May hasn’t seen for a while – a degree of Tory ‘unity’.
Even if Labour can force a confidence vote this week – either informally in the PM, or formally in the government – the Tories and Mrs May would it seems probably survive.
Similarly, the Democratic Unionist Party indicated that they would back the PM in any confidence vote, dismissing what they called Labour “antics”. The DUP may be angry with Mrs May’s deal, but they fear creating a path for Jeremy Corbyn – a long-time ally of Sinn Fein – that might lead to Number 10. As such they will oppose her deal, but they won’t yet vote against her or her government in any confidence vote.
What happens next?
With the government likely to survive even if there is a confidence motion, the PM looks set to soldier on with her Brexit plans. She will hope that she can gain further concessions from the EU or failing that force MPs to reluctantly back her plans rather than face crashing out without a deal.
In Brexit news
Having announced that MPs would vote on her deal in the week of 14th January, the PM went on to defend the deal itself, stating her belief that last week’s summit communique – in which the EU expressed their desire to avoid the UK entering the backstop by expeditiously securing a trade deal – as having “legal force”.
She repeated her hopes that further reassurances from the EU on the Northern Irish backstop would be forthcoming, that the backstop would not be triggered, and if it was, that it would only ever be temporary.
Earlier a European Commission spokesperson all but scuppered the PM’s hopes of securing additional concessions from the EU to help get her deal through Parliament, saying: “The deal that is on the table is the best and the only deal possible. We will not reopen it. It will not be renegotiated. The EU Council has given the clarifications that were possible at this stage so no further meetings with the UK are foreseen.” The key bit being the point about “no further meetings”.
Backbench MPs from both her own Party and Labour attacked the PM for “running down the clock” by holding off on a vote on the deal until January, rather than holding the vote before Christmas.
Why does it matter?
The EU’s unwavering position means demands from Conservative Brexiters and the DUP are unlikely to be satisfied.
With the PM’s room for manoeuvre significantly curtailed it appears that she may be seeking to run down the clock by delaying a vote. Holding a vote towards the end of January could allow the PM to present the vote as a binary choice between her deal and no deal. Backbench MPs from all Parties, including some of her own MPs who had pledged to back her deal, criticised her approach, saying it could lead to dangerous uncertainty.
This approach also appears to close off the chances of the government pivoting to a “Brexit Plan B” such as a “Norway Plus” deal, as it would leave little or no time for further negotiation.
Instead it looks like Mrs May hopes that, looking over the precipice of a possible no deal Brexit, a significant number of moderate Labour MPs will baulk and either abstain or vote with her, enabling her deal to pass the Commons in January.
However, it remains the case that a significant number of MPs believe that a second referendum will be required to break the Brexit deadlock, and so their vocal campaigning will only grow – despite the explicit opposition of the PM and implicit opposition of Jeremy Corbyn.
What happens next?
If the PM manages to avoid or win any confidence votes – either in her personally or the government more broadly – then MPs will break, as planned, for Christmas on Thursday.
With the EU appearing to rule out further concessions or reassurances around the backstop, the PM’s hopes of an Emergency Summit in January appear to have been quashed.
MPs won’t return to Westminster until 7th January. As they gather, they will be faced with this unpalatable reality – with no end in sight to the uncertainty, and seemingly with no majority for any outcome in Parliament, the UK will be just 81 days away from leaving the EU.