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British Prime Minister Theresa May wins confidence vote despite Brexit defeat

Labour’s gambit to force general elections failed. But the UK still has to figure out Brexit.

Theresa May Faces No-confidence Vote
Prime Minister Theresa May ahead of her no-confidence vote on January 16, 2019.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

It looks like British Prime Minister Theresa May has survived — again.

May fended off a no-confidence vote in her government on Wednesday, a day after she suffered a crushing defeat in Parliament when lawmakers rejected her Brexit deal.

She won 325 to 306, with her Conservative Party and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — whose partnership props her up government — backing her in the final count.

It was a defeat, of sorts, for the opposition. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for the no-confidence vote on Tuesday, which forces members of Parliament to decide whether it supports May’s government, in an attempt to trigger general elections. But it ended up being a sideshow to the bigger, more pressing, and still-unresolved debate: what the heck to do about Brexit.

Now that May’s government has survived, she will meet with party leaders to put together a Brexit “Plan B,” which she has to present to Parliament by next Monday. There’s an added sense of urgency, since the Brexit deadline of March 29, 2019, is swiftly approaching. The United Kingdom and European Union need to reach and ratify a deal by that date, or the UK exits the bloc without a deal, to potentially catastrophic economic and political consequences.

May has the confidence of the House of Commons. But does anyone really have confidence in her?

Earlier this week, Parliament defeated May’s Brexit deal by a margin so embarrassing (230 votes, to be exact) that it goes down as one of the worst losses for a British government in recent history.

After the verdict, May accepted that her government would have to face a no-confidence vote, telling members of Parliament (MPs) that “we need to confirm whether this government still enjoys the confidence of the house.”

“I believe that it does,” she added. “But given the scale and importance of tonight’s vote, it is right that others have the chance to test that question if they wish to do so.”

Corbyn, joined by other opposition leaders, followed through with a motion of no-confidence in the government. The opposition wanted to oust May’s government, but also saw this as a pathway to general elections, which could provide them with an opportunity to take control.

Corbyn insisted Wednesday that “the scale of defeat” for May’s Brexit deal should be enough to get May to resign, “and the country would be able to choose the government that they want.”

May survived, and has not given any real indication that she will resign. But it’s hard to count this as a real “win.” She still doesn’t have support from her own party on her Brexit deal, and she’s already faced an internal party revolt last month. May’s own Conservative party tried to oust her in a (failed) no-confidence vote in December, and more than 100 Tories voted against her deal on Tuesday. So did Northern Ireland’s DUP.

Her party is also deeply divided. Conservatives are generally split among ardent Brexiteers who hated May’s deal and are willing to risk a no-deal Brexit, more moderate and pro-business MPs that range from backing May’s deal to seeking a softer Brexit, and a segment of Remainers who don’t want to leave the European Union at all. Some of them are holding out hope for a second referendum on Brexit.

None of those factions, though, want to risk a prime minister or party coming to power that is opposed to their camp’s aims. If May’s government had lost the no-confidence vote, it could trigger general elections. And that could have potentially brought Labour to power — and handed Jeremy Corbyn the prime ministership, something especially unpalatable to hardline Conservatives or the DUP.

Matthias Matthijs, a professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins, put it this way to me earlier this week: “It’s like the Tea Party giving power to Bernie Sanders. There’s no way.”

So to recap, May survived the vote due to party loyalty, and the fear among the different Conservative party factions and the DUP that if her government went down, something worse would take its place. It’s not exactly a reassuring outcome. May could face another no-confidence vote in the House of Commons before this Brexit debate is over, or she could resign if she feels she doesn’t have the support for her brand of Brexit.

This day spent debating the no-confidence motion now leaves Parliament with the same problem is started with: The UK still doesn’t have a Brexit deal — and maybe never will.