May survives ... for the moment
She might have won a vote of confidence, but the UK faces a full-blown constitutional crisis, reckons Paul Demarty
Wednesday’s vote of confidence was always a forgone conclusion. However, 117 to 200 is pretty narrow, far too narrow, especially when you consider how many Tory MPs are on the payroll. In fact, a majority of backbenchers no longer support her. Maybe the no-confidence motion sponsored by the European Research Group was tactically premature. Either way, Brexit is rapidly developing into a full-blown constitutional crisis. The talk now is of some kind of national government.
One thing that is certain is that Theresa May will not survive much longer as prime minister. Already, last weekend, the quality papers resounded with the harsh sound of sharpening knives. All over Westminster and beyond, the hubbub was unmistakable, as one anonymous MP after another dropped careless whispers to their favoured journalists. The Labour Party was arranging a coalition of parliamentary parties and MPs to turn the inevitable December 11 defeat on Theresa May’s Brexit deal into a vote of confidence. So inevitable was that defeat that her main rivals were all but openly flaunting their leadership ambitions.
It is hardly surprising, then, that she bottled it. On December 10, to howls of derision, May announced that the vote would not take place - not bothering, for once, to try to put a brave face on it. In its current form, she conceded with just a hint of bland understatement, the bill would have fallen “by a significant margin”. The whispers were that the government would have suffered a three-figure defeat - a calamity to remember for parliamentary nerds.
Thus May wriggled out away from her tormentors once again. Yet there is no denying that this way of avoiding defeat is a defeat in itself. Beneath the usual tactical point-scoring in the Commons, one detected a faint note of deep frustration from people who surely want to get on with it. May will not have it, however. She is off to Europe once again to seek concessions (more of which anon). Scorched by the parliamentary devil, she wants to paddle again in the deep blue European sea.
We must beg the question of what the point of this charade is. Jeremy Corbyn was surely right to ask why MPs should have to wait another month, for May to come back with the same deal, and vote against it then. “Bringing back the same botched deal,” he said, “will not change its fundamental flaws and deeply held objections right across this house.” And, if defeat is again thought inevitable by her long-suffering whips, is she just going to postpone it once more?
Stage and screen
The image we have of May at this point is one familiar from action films, when a brave hero sacrifices him or herself to save the other protagonists - fighting courageously and desperately against overwhelming odds until slowly they are overpowered. She faced down the ERG, but she has 99 problems, possibly more, and Jacob Rees-Mogg is but one. She cannot fight everybody at once.
Her sole remaining point of advantage is that ‘everybody at once’ cannot fight her either. The coalition Labour was supposed to be cobbling together to offload her last weekend stretched from the party’s own leftwing leadership all the way to the addled Protestant bigots of the Democratic Unionist Party; such a baroque alliance can agree on nothing, save that the government should be offloaded - a statement that frankly is also true of Labour on its own. We may profitably indulge in scepticism when European leaders tell us that May’s deal is the only one imaginable on the table; they will, of course, renegotiate if it is to the European Union core powers’ advantage. It is, however, quite true that right now May’s deal is the only one on the table (or was, until she took it off again). Much of her flapping about seems to be directed at forcing the hands of her enemies; it works on a degenerate fantasist like Rees-Mogg, of course, but harder-headed politicians can just refuse the bait.
The result is yet more stalemate. It seems now that the idea was that we would be treated to a little theatre. There was already something surreally hammy about cabinet ministers doing a tour of the media to claim that the vote was definitely going ahead just a couple of hours before it was postponed; but it turns out the indignity stretched further still, when BuzzFeed News revealed that apparently EU officials had learned a full day before that May planned to cancel it and go back to the negotiating table. The nearest thing to a point to her is to get a codicil on the Irish backstop agreed; but then it seems - according at least to Eurocrat friends of Labour MP Stephen Doughty - that this little piece of legalese was already drafted weeks ago.
The end result was presumably to be a neat piece of cross-channel sleight of hand, whereby the PM would appear to go to various European leaders and wrest a meaningful concession, without anything changing in reality. Such a trick might have been enough at least to obtain a respectable defeat - many MPs on the Tory benches are quite as worried about how they look to their enraged constituents in the shires as they are about the substantive issues. But it seems that the Europeans have given up on the idea: hence the leaks, and the parade of EU worthies - from Jean-Claude Juncker to Angela Merkel - refusing to allow any renegotiation to the deal agreed by the EU 27.
Thus we are back to square one, and frankly May should just save the exchequer the travel expenses. She has survived for now; Labour is not in the end going to submit a motion of no confidence, believing it would lose, with John McDonnell accusing the Scottish nationalists of provocation for insisting it go ahead. The overall situation is like a film that has gotten hopelessly bogged down before the crisis that inaugurates the final act; the characters simply are not in the right place to push things forward, though we must assume that something will be pulled out from somewhere. And, in spite of the crisis of authority at the centre, there is still a wide range of options available to the British ruling class and its lieutenants. It is just that none of them involve Theresa May living in 10 Downing Street. Indeed she has reportedly assured sceptics that she will not lead the Tories in the 2022 general election (but it is a sure bet she will be gone long before that).
May’s deal did at least gather support - albeit reluctant - from the ‘official’ representatives of British capital, in the form of the Confederation of British Industry and the like. They seem to have been won over to the idea that it is the only alternative to a disastrous hard Brexit. If it has no way through parliament, however, it is scarcely any use to the CBI. Remainer types continue their crusade for a second referendum - an objective mendaciously prosecuted as a proxy for their real one of aborting Brexit entirely. Yet there cannot be a path through this parliament for that either. To be blunt - someone has to actually call the referendum. That someone is the government. This government will not.
So what government will? We have raised often the spectre of a government of national unity in these pages, and we make no apologies for another airing of the theme. Parliamentary arithmetic certainly could stretch to uniting Dominic Grieve with Keir Starmer, David Cameron with Ed Miliband, in a heroic coalition to save Britain from disaster - indeed former Tory education secretary Nicky Morgan proposed a “government of national unity” on December 11. Once you have such a government, however, why bother with the referendum?
Though it differs in superficial ways, John McDonnell’s demand that Labour be permitted to form a minority government is in reality just such a proposal for a government of national unity, since it could only be formed with at least a confidence-and-supply arrangement that stretched across many parties. It is just that this makes it the most fantastical variant. Can we really imagine the DUP offering such support to Corbyn and McDonnell, with their long histories of links to Irish republicans? Will enough Tories?
Tactically, Corbyn and McDonnell are probably right to bide their time when it comes to submitting a motion of no confidence. They need only look towards the forlorn honourable head-banger for East Somerset (a certain Rees-Mogg) to see that timing is a very important matter. Yet, when they pick their moment, they should not be so certain that they will be the ones to benefit. This is a time of intense crisis, and it turns out that the British bourgeois political system responds about as effectively as the transport network does to the occasional sprinkling of snow. The worst possible outcome for it, however, is a Corbyn government; the second a hard Brexit. And the left might consider a halt to shrieking about offloading Theresa May until such time as it has a plan for the bloodletting that will immediately follow.