After an afternoon of will-they-won’t-they over Labour’s threat to table a motion of no confidence, Jeremy Corbyn has told the Speaker he will do just this. However, where earlier reports suggested the no confidence vote would be in the government, it will now be in Theresa May herself. This is important because a confidence motion in the Prime Minister personally has no legal or constitutional force – were May to lose it she would not need to resign. It is also up to the government whether they make time for it – they don’t have to. Given that Labour have no opposition day debates left to set the agenda, it could just not happen.
The Labour leader’s decision to do this comes after a bizarre afternoon filled with contradicting messages from party figures. After Andrew Gwynne insisted on Sunday that Labour wouldn’t consider tabling a motion of no confidence in the government until after the meaningful vote, the party appeared to change tactic this afternoon. Labour party figures briefed out that Corbyn will table one unless May came up with a date for the meaningful vote. In the end she did (it will be held w/c 14th Jan). Party figures – including John McDonnell – were quick to herald this as a victory for Labour even though it isn’t until mid January.
BREAKING: With the risk of a no confidence vote in her leadership, we have forced the PM to bring her botched Brexit deal back to Parliament.
She wanted to waste time to create a false choice between her bad deal and no deal.
But we won’t let her. pic.twitter.com/4FFnqmOuUs
— The Labour Party (@UKLabour) December 17, 2018
Then after widespread ridicule, Corbyn performed a U-turn – telling John Bercow the date announcement wasn’t good enough and he would be tabling a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister:
‘It’s very clear that it’s bad, unacceptable that we should be waiting almost a month before we have a meaningful vote on the crucial issue facing the future of this country.
As the only way I can think of ensuring a vote takes place this week, I’m about to table a motion which says the following: ‘That this House has no confidence in the prime minister due to her failure to allow the House of Commons to have a meaningful vote straight away on the withdrawal agreement and framework for future relationships between the UK and European Union.’
So, what is going on? The decision to table a motion of no confidence in May appears to be an attempt at a compromise. The Leader’s Office have been reluctant to go for a no confidence motion in the government as they don’t have the numbers – or the desire to push the Brexit debate along and come under more pressure from its membership to back a ‘People’s Vote’.
It seems the negative reaction to Corbyn’s initial U-turn – not tabling the motion – led the Labour leader to perform a second U-turn and table the motion after all. It looks chaotic but the move could help to placate those Corbyn allies calling on Labour to take more decisive action at a time of Tory turmoil. Given that the motion is non-binding, might not be heard and both the DUP and the Tory Eurosceptics appear to be sticking with May for the time being, it won’t do much else.
Labour sources now say that if the government does not find time for it tomorrow, they will move to table a formal no confidence motion in the government. That would be much higher stakes. Bearing in mind that Jacob Rees-Mogg today suggested in the Chamber he would back the government in any such vote (and this is the party line for the European Research Group), there’s a chance this backfires and actually helps to unite the Tories around May, even if only briefly. Were that to happen and the vote fail, Corbyn would be shown to be incapable of bringing about an early general election (his preferred Brexit outcome). He would subsequently come under pressure to change Labour’s Brexit policy to back a ‘People’s Vote’ – precisely the situation the Leader’s Office have been trying to avoid.
Update: Theresa May has called Corbyn’s bluff. The government will not make time for the confidence motion in the Prime Minister. As things stand, Labour have no plans to table a formal no confidence motion in the government.