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Where Now Following the ‘Vote of Confidence’?

As 2019 begins, Lansons’ Head of Public Affairs, Michael Stott, considers where British politics is heading following the vote of confidence at the end of 2018.

So, the Prime Minister has won the vote of confidence, not quite as well as she might have hoped, but still by about a two-thirds majority.

With 117 voting against her, she has either lost the support of two-thirds of Conservative backbenchers, or a good number of those on the Government payroll. Either way, it was a typically Theresa May victory: not particularly good, but enough to drag herself on.

Those unhappy with her leadership – which in fairness is probably a lot more than those who voted against her – will potentially have to wait another 12-months before they can have another shot at getting rid of her.

There will be many who will be fuming at those who pushed for this vote, because had it happened after Brexit in April, there would be a stronger case for her to go at that point. Many will simply have voted for May because now was not the right time, not because they had confidence in her.

Number 10 aides have already briefed that a vote for her now is not a vote for her to go into the next election as PM, so while it might not be a full 12-months, the outcome of last night is that Theresa May clings on. As it is, the only result is that Brexiters have spiked their guns and shown themselves to have done nothing but split the party.

Its only real outcome is that it has forced the PM to acknowledge that she can’t go on indefinitely – that she will leave at some point in the next 12-months, probably once Brexit is finalised.

So, the Prime Minister is safe for now, but last night doesn’t change the fundamentals of the dilemma she finds herself in with her deal. She still doesn’t have the votes for it, and if anything, those who voted against her have probably hardened their position against it even further.

The Prime Minister’s attempts to find a position in which she can bring on board almost all of her party and a substantial number from other parties seems as far away as ever.

So where next for the deal?

Theresa May will trudge back to Europe and try to find something extra to sweeten the pill. And I want to stress here that it’s wrong to suggest there’s no room for manoeuvre for the Prime Minister over there.

We must never forget there is a negotiation going on, so we must not take as gospel what Brussels is saying about there being no room for further negotiation. Their word is not more honest than the British Government’s in this regard, and that’s been a grave fault of British public discourse throughout the past two years.

Despite all evidence that they have been prepared to move on a whole range of issues, we hear time and again from British commentators that Brussels says X so X must be the case.

“We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification.” – Donald Tusk

“There is no room for renegotiation, but further clarifications are possible.” – Jean-Claude Juncker

These quotes are just convoluted ways of saying there is room for further negotiation. The bigger problem here is whether there is anything that might actually help the PM to win enough votes.

Since the main issue is around the inability to exit the backstop unilaterally, let’s imagine for a second that May were able to get what she wanted. Do we think that the ERGers, the DUP, and Labour then vote for it? My sense is that they would not. Or not all of them.

So, while it might bring on board some of her MPs who were unhappy, things would still be tight in the House of Commons. I’m pretty sure that some would then see the £39bn as an issue, or find another way to oppose the deal, and the Labour Party seems unlikely to ever come around to it.

The only comprehensible and consistent part of their position is that they oppose Theresa May. My hunch is that it’s too close to call and too early to say whether, when the vote comes, she can pass it.

We don’t know what Donald Tusk and Jean Claude Juncker euphemistically call ‘facilitations and clarifications’ will be. If it’s good enough, then we leave as expected on 29 March 2019 having seen it pass. If not, what then can she do to break the impasse?

It might take something dramatic and having been given a get out of jail free card for 12-months, the world’s her oyster really, and she can afford to lose the delicate balancing act she’s been playing and choose to pander towards any group she wants.

She can try and play for a combination of Labour soft Brexit MPs, alongside Tory Unionists and Remainers, or DUP and hard Brexiters.

She can start ditching bits of the deal to try and bring on board more of the Ultra-Remainers in the hope that will help it pass.

If you’re interested in politics and Brexit, we;re hosting a breakfast session discussing ‘What Next For Brexit?’ with Philip Collins, Lead Writer at The Times on Friday 25 January. Click here for full details.