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As speculation grows about a vote of confidence in Theresa May – here's what we can expect to happen next

A vote of confidence is on the cards, and there’s still a chance we could have a second referendum or even a general election in the near future

John Rentoul
Thursday 15 November 2018 15:28 GMT
Jacob Rees-Mogg will not change mind about submitting letter of no confidence

It looks as if Conservative MPs will shortly hold a vote of confidence in Theresa May’s leadership, after a week in which she has lost four ministers and support for her Brexit deal has ebbed away. What might happen next?

Vote of confidence

Not to be confused with a House of Commons vote of confidence in the government, this is an internal Conservative Party matter. It would be triggered if 48 Tory MPs write to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers, to ask for it. It is a secret ballot of all Tory MPs on the question of whether they have confidence in Theresa May as leader of the party. There are currently 315 Tory MPs, so she would need 158 votes to win.

It is unwise to predict what might happen in the middle of events, but it is quite possible that she would win the vote, although large numbers of her MPs will vote against her. Many MPs and commentators will try to sound sage by saying that if, say, 100 MPs voted against her she would have to resign, but there is no reason why she couldn’t carry on even if 157 MPs voted against her.

Her position looks so bleak that a further humiliation could hardly make it worse. And if she won it would strengthen her position, because the rules prevent another vote of confidence for 12 months, meaning her party critics couldn’t try to oust her at the moment of maximum pressure, when the Brexit deal goes to the House of Commons for the “meaningful vote” (below) next month.

Next stage of Brexit talks

Her position looks bleaker than ever, though it is not yet irrecoverable. She looked cheerful enough before she delivered her statement in the Commons on Thursday morning, laughing and joking with colleagues behind the speaker’s chair before she took her seat.

And her statement was clear and delivered confidently. She seemed to believe in it: there were elements of the Brexit deal that were “uncomfortable” but that she had no choice but to accept, because the overall deal is better than leaving without a deal.

As she told the Commons and press conference in No 10 on Thursday evening, the Brexit deal is not quite final. The non-binding declaration on the future relationship still has to be filled out at the next EU summit, but the legally binding text of the withdrawal agreement, including the guarantee to keep the Irish border open, cannot be altered, she said. She believes she has negotiated the best possible deal on that.

This morning’s news that Michael Gove, who was co-leader of the Leave campaign in the referendum, is staying on as environment secretary, helps stabilise the prime minister’s position.

The ‘meaningful vote’

It is impossible to predict sensibly what will happen next. The Brexit deal cannot come into effect until parliament approves it in the “meaningful vote”, now expected early next month.

She cannot get her Brexit deal through parliament without the support of large numbers of Labour MPs. At the moment, that seems unlikely. But her hope must be that she can force them to choose between supporting her deal or being the accessories to a no-deal Brexit.

No one knows how Labour MPs would respond in such a situation, least of all Labour MPs themselves. Perhaps it would need May to make some concessions to the opposition – Jeremy Corbyn has, after all, offered to help the prime minister if she would listen to Labour’s demands. In practice, Labour’s policy is not very different from the government’s, but politically Corbyn is unlikely to want to be seen to “save” May. The question is whether Labour could avoid the opposite problem of being seen as voting for a no-deal Brexit.

Why can’t we have a new referendum instead?

As long as Theresa May, or any other likely possible Conservative leader, is prime minister, it is hard to see how another referendum could happen. It would require Brexit day to be postponed, which is something that only the government can seek, and to which the other 27 EU members would have to agree.

That means that, if May – or any other Tory prime minister – cannot get the Brexit deal through parliament, then the UK will leave the EU without a deal in March next year. That is the default option, for which parliament has already voted. That is what will happen, unless a majority in the Commons votes for something else – or unless there is a new government.

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How could we get a general election?

The most plausible way in which a general election could happen would be if about a dozen pro-EU Conservative MPs voted to bring their government down – as the only way open to them to try to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

If enough of them supported a Labour motion of no confidence in the government – different from a Tory party vote of no confidence in its leader – it would open the way to an election. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, if the government loses a motion of confidence, there is then a 14-day period in which Jeremy Corbyn could try to form a government.

If he cannot, there must be an election. But it is possible that, if the dozen Tories felt strongly enough, they would support a Corbyn government without an election, on condition that he stopped a no-deal Brexit. Labour would have to promise a deal very similar to Theresa May’s, including the open-ended guarantee of an open Irish border. There would have to be at least 12 such Tory MPs – seven to wipe out May’s current majority, with the DUP, of 13, and five more to offset the handful of hard-Brexit Labour MPs.

That seems unlikely, but then pretty much all the ways forward seem close to impossible.

This article was updated on 16 November to reflect this morning’s developments

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