There is at least one person in Britain who would beat Theresa May in a contest to see how far they could kick a proverbial can down the road. Fortunately for her, it is the leader of the opposition. Why won’t he do it? Why won’t he table that motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s government while it is bleeding by the roadside? Given a chance to deliver the coup de grace, he chooses instead to table a personal motion of no confidence in Theresa May which he knows the government can put off through lack of time, and which he knows would have no great consequences if she did lose it. No government in the past 40 years has looked quite so miserable, quite so open to being toppled by Parliament, and yet still he won’t do it.
Yet there is a very good reason for his reluctance. Corbyn might behave in a peculiar fashion by standards of other party leaders – choosing, for example, to drag up Universal Credit at Prime Minister’s Questions when May was in deep embarrassment over her Brexit deal — but he is more politically astute than many give him credit for. He isn’t going to table a motion of no confidence until he himself has confidence of winning that vote – and of winning a subsequent general election.
For all the chaos at Number 10, neither outcome is very likely just at the moment. No Tory MP, however rebellious, is going to vote to bring down their own government. A motion of no confidence is only going to succeed if the DUP chooses to abandon its confidence and supply agreement. But it is unlikely to do that in advance of the vote on the Brexit withdrawal bill in the week beginning 14 January. The highest chance of Corbyn winning a no-confidence vote would be if May’s deal was – against all odds – voted through by the Commons and the DUP decided its best hope of stopping the deal was to bring down the government.
But even then would Corbyn win the subsequent general election? It’s hard to say given the remarkable turnaround during the 2017 general election campaign, but a Corbyn victory would still be a long shot. One little noted aspect of the past few weeks of chaos is how little the voting public seems to be moved by it. In polls throughout this period voting intentions have remained where they are for the past 12 months: with the two main parties neck and neck. But crucially, it is Theresa May who has the stronger – or rather the less negative – personal leadership ratings. Never mind her bad deal and her seemingly hopeless journey towards a very large brick wall in the shape of the withdrawal deal vote, May’s approval rating, according to YouGov is at minus 31, still a tad ahead of Corbyn’s on minus 35. Last week’s confidence vote seems to have inspired a bit of sympathy: had the public been asked to vote in that poll it seems they would have voted 40 per cent to 34 per cent to keep May at the helm.
Corbyn knows he is attempting the virtually impossible: to foist a hard left government onto Britain. In 44 years the British public has not elected a Labour party led by anyone to the left of Tony Blair. While Corbyn achieved an astonishing result during the 2017 election campaign he has made virtually no progress in the polls since – instead his ratings have slowly subsided. In 2017 the Conservatives were punished for what many – represented by Brenda from Bristol – saw as an unnecessary election. Were Corbyn to force a general election in the run-up to Brexit the same negative effect might work against him.
His best chance of achieving a far left government for Britain lies in May allowing the country to drift towards a no-deal Brexit – followed by a queues of lorries and the like (genuine chaos might not be necessary; the illusion of it might be enough). The country might then be more in the mood for a change of government, and the Tories would be more bitterly divided than ever. So far, everything Corbyn has done has been to help nudge the country towards that outcome: a no deal Brexit. What could suit him better than a clean break with the EU, which would no longer be there to restrain his socialist ambitions?