Another day and nothing has changed. After a calamitous defeat over her Withdrawal Agreement yesterday, Theresa May faced a vote of confidence in her government this evening. She won by 325 votes to 306 — which considering the state of her government now, isn’t all that bad.
The beleaguered prime minister – an increasingly tautologous term – is now left in much the same position as last night. The architect of a deal that no one wants to support with a barely there mandate still has to find a way out a parliamentary deadlock, figuring out how exactly to renegotiate a non-negotiable deal with the EU, or somehow find the backing of the 118 Conservative MPs who rejected it last night.
Unlike the symbolic vote of no confidence held against Theresa May in late December, Corbyn could hold a confidence vote in the government every day of the week until 29th of March if he so wishes. And with a man as cynical as May is robotic, we can’t exactly rule that out. Can he win over the numbers? Perhaps an easier task than the one facing May. But the Tories made it clear today that their vested interest lies with staying in government, even with May at the helm. This was expressed well in Mark Francois’s interjection in parliament earlier: While he and the prime minister may not exactly see “eye to eye” on Brexit, he said “I’m a Conservative first and last, and I know opportunism when I see it. So I can tell her when the bells ring the whole of the ERG will walk through the lobby with her to vote this nonsense down.”
That’s all well and good, but the problem remains – what is Plan B? May has indicated that she will be holding cross-party talks to find a way out of the deadlock, and yesterday she talked about “creative solutions” to the perennial backstop problem, but as ever it appears that she is still fixated on her triumvirate of terrible options: My deal, no deal or no Brexit.
Like Attorney General Geoffrey Cox yesterday, Environment Secretary and Brexiteer Michael Gove put up the best defence for May in parliament during the confidence motion debate. Running through Corbyn’s foreign policy failings Conservative MPs cried shame as Gove finally bellowed: “No allies, no deterrent, no army, no way can this country ever allow that man to be our Prime Minister.”
Corbyn, on the other hand, failed to mount any meaningful challenge to May today. PMQs was naturally overshadowed by the looming no confidence vote, and after his ferocious attack yesterday Corbyn seemed a little worn out. He didn’t fail to make the case, however, that any other prime minister who lost the support of that many of their own MPs would resign (referring to the staggering 118 who voted against her deal). Ironic, considering Corbyn himself lost the support of 80% of his Labour MPs when they voted to remove him as leader just two years ago.
It is remarkable that Corbyn managed to turn the day after the greatest parliamentary defeat in history into what was, on balance, a good day for the Tories. Nothing like uniting against an old enemy, eh?
So if May does continue to hold on to power she will have to come up with something new, diluting or compromising on her red lines. That could look like membership of the customs union, which is not practically speaking worlds away from her deal as it stands. Or, the EU has said they would extend Article 50 for another referendum, a general election, or to complete the legal proceedings for her deal. The first two aren’t even remotely on May’s radar so as long as she stays captain of this rapidly sinking ship extension may be unlikely.
With Labour desperate for a general election and no clear way forward on what Brexit might look like after that, and the Tories irredeemably divided between every vision of Brexit conceivable, this entire day of political capers was precious time wasted.
Meanwhile, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made it clear that the backstop remains the bottom line for Ireland. He said today that preparations for a no deal Brexit are no longer contingencies, they are being implemented.
May yesterday gave MPs her reassurances that the government’s strategy is not to push the UK off a cliff edge, backed into supporting her deal or leaving with the default no deal. But in the absence of any consensus for an alternative, no general election immediately on the horizon, still no indication of an extension of Article 50, and resolute assurances from both Labour and Conservative leaders that they will not seek a second referendum, the clock keeps ticking down to the 29th of March and in the absence of anything else, that means – no deal.