Brexit: Will Labour launch a vote of no confidence?

Brexit: Will Labour launch a vote of no confidence?

The upcoming vote on the Brexit deal in the UK seems doomed to fail, after which the Labour Party has announced it intends to stage a vote of no confidence in Theresa May. Given that such a vote is unlikely to succeed, why is Labour willing to make the attempt?

Facing almost certain defeat at the hands of Parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May postponed December’s vote on her Brexit withdrawal agreement with the hope of convincing the EU to provide additional assurances on some of the more contentious issues in order to help persuade enough MPs to push the deal through when it finally returns to the House of Commons next week.

The EU is adamant that the withdrawal agreement is no longer up for negotiation, leaving May with no option but to present it to Parliament with only one definitive assurance from Brussels—it’s either this deal or no deal. The prime minister faces an uphill battle from here, and in the present political climate it appears practically certain that the agreement will fail in Parliament.

A recent amendment to the EU Withdrawal Act requires the government to return to Parliament within three days of a failed vote to outline next steps. The amendment was designed by opponents to place pressure on the government and force it into a more amenable position, but circumstances might not permit the government to change its position. If the agreement dies in the Commons, the Labour Party leadership has indicated that it plans to forward a motion of no confidence immediately following the vote. The motion will trigger a Parliament-wide vote on the government itself which, if it passes, will oblige Theresa May to ask the Queen to dissolve the legislature and force a general election.

No confidence vote unlikely to succeed

There are inherent risks to pursuing the no confidence route, however. Although there is a substantial degree of opposition to Theresa May’s rule from within her own party, it is almost certain that every Tory MP would support the government in a no confidence bid, preferring the present situation to the possibility of installing archrival Jeremy Corbyn and Labour into power. This would unite the Conservatives around May, which would not only save the present government and strengthen her premiership, but could muster enough support on the backbenches to push through a later iteration of the withdrawal agreement.

Even if the government collapses and a general election is called, Labour’s political opponents would probably frame it as a selfish attempt by the party to seize power in the midst of the country’s most severe crisis of the twenty-first century which, they might then argue, will only cause further chaos. Although a large majority of British voters are critical of the government’s handling of Brexit, they do not think that a general election is an appropriate response, meaning many voters might agree that a Labour-sanctioned general election is a stunt to advance the party’s interests before the country’s.

Possibilities for Labour?

But the country is still deeply critical of the Conservatives’ handling of Brexit and, in the event of a general election, Brexit would undoubtedly be the core issue at stake during the campaign. This would provide Labour with an incredible opportunity to present its alternative to the British population, which might prove sufficient for the party to overcome accusations of petty politicking. Opinion polls suggest that at times when the Conservatives have faced considerable difficulty regarding Brexit, Labour’s poll numbers have jumped, oftentimes pushing it ahead as the most popular party in the country.

A swing in support behind Labour is especially likely if Theresa May’s successor is a hard Brexiteer in the mold of Boris Johnson (she has already stated she will not lead the party into the next general election) and Labour is seen as an even-handed alternative to the excesses of the Conservative Party. Of course, a Corbyn government would be hand-strung by a similar degree of divisiveness within its own ranks, but its fault lines are forming along markedly different axes. With Labour in control, the Brexit debate would shift away from ‘withdrawal agreement v. no-deal’ and towards ‘withdrawal agreement v. second referendum.’

More symbolism than substance

Even considering the potential risks and rewards, it is difficult to understand why Labour is so keen to pursue a no confidence vote under the present circumstances. The Conservative Party in its entirety is almost certain to support the government, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)—the Northern Irish party on whose ten votes the government depends—is also expected to stand behind the government. Unless a substantial section of the Conservatives breaks ranks or the DUP rescinds its support (both of which are possible but neither likely), a motion of no confidence will be dead on arrival and the government will continue to lead the Brexit charge.

The previous two years have taught that anything can emerge from the mire of Brexit, but it does appear that a Labour motion of no confidence will be little more than a last ditch (and ultimately futile) effort to exert its influence over Brexit from the increasingly distant opposition benches. While Labour would be apt to measure the risks and advantages of a general election, it is far more likely that a no confidence bid will be counted by all observers as a symbolic show of discontent by an opposition which has had virtually no impact on the Brexit process to date.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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