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December 18, 2018

The secret plots behind the no-confidence motions

After the vote of confidence is before the vote of confidence. Exasperated readers for whom Brexit is not part of their day job might be understandably confused about the various categories of confidence votes. The one that Theresa May passed last week was a purely internal Conservative party procedure. She was challenged for the leadership of the party. 

What may be happening today is something completely different: Jeremy Corbyn has tabled a no-confidence motion against May. But be careful, this is not the official parliamentary no-confidence procedure. What Corbyn is proposing is only an informal, non-binding motion. 

The official procedure is linked to the Fixed Terms Parliaments Act. This would allow the leader of the opposition to demand a vote of confidence in the government. This did not happen yesterday, to the fury of some Labour frontbenchers.

If such a request were made, a debate would have to be held the next day, and the parliament would vote on a precisely-worded motion: "this house has no confidence in Her Majesty’s government". If there is a majority in favour of the motion, the parliament has 14 days to choose a new leader and pass a vote of confidence in that leader. If that exercise fails, there must be elections. 

So why did Corbyn not go for an official vote of confidence, instead of a non-binding motion? The answer is internal Labour politics. If an official vote of no-confidence failed, as it most likely would, the Labour Party’s manifesto would then compel the party leadership to favour a second referendum, an option Corbyn himself is not keen on. Second-referendum supporters, like Labour’s Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer, have urged Corbyn to trigger the official procedure for precisely this reason. They want the motion to fail so they can get their referendum. Through the manoeuvre of a non-binding parliamentary motion, Corbyn outfoxed them. If he loses, he can justifiably claim that a formal no-confidence motion stands no chance of success either.

The Guardian reports that the vote on the motion might be held today. The DUP and the Tory eurosceptics already say they would support May. This means the vote will fail. Which is exactly what Corbyn wants. 

We see no great likelihood of a formal vote of no confidence at least until after the vote on May’s Brexit deal, which is now scheduled to take place in the third week of January. We would not rule out a second vote in February or March. May herself is opening up to changes in the political declaration, in other words to a compromise with some Labour MPs. Her strategy will be to seek assurances on the backstop that are sufficient to reduce the rebellion from Tory eurosceptics, and to open up the debate on the future relationship. We struggle to be confident that she could get the numbers together, but it is the only feasible strategy to line up support for an agreement.

Our sense is that persistent failure to support the deal would result in a no-deal Brexit. We would not rule out a second vote on the deal, which would have the advantage of allowing MPs to reject the deal as a matter of principle, but to accept it reluctantly in a second vote to prevent the alternative of a no-deal Brexit. May herself has so far been careful not to rule out any options, except a second referendum. 

The Telegraph, meanwhile, reports this morning that the government has received legal advice that any extension of Art. 50 beyond July 2 would run a high risk of a successful legal challenge to force the UK to take part in the European elections. This is obviously a scenario second-referendum supporters are keen to avoid. This makes July 2 de facto a hard Brexit deadline.

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