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16 January 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 1:42pm

Does a Brexit deal defeat for the government mean a general election?

Probably not, unless enough MPs change their stance and join Labour in a no-confidence vote.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, there are only two ways to call an early election: if a motion for calling one is agreed by two-thirds or more of the House, or if a motion of no-confidence is passed and no alternative government can be cobbled together within 14 days. Shortly after MPs voted down Theresa May’s Brexit deal, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announced he had tabled a vote of no confidence in the government, which will take place on Wednesday evening, at 7pm.  

It’s unlikely the government will be calling an election, so the most likely route would be this confidence motion.

Labour’s ideal scenario would be to force another general election if MPs reject Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Jeremy Corbyn has been calling for this outcome for some time, arguing that it’s time for Labour to take the reins and try to negotiate a different deal.

This option has been looming for some time. In the run up to the vote, shadow cabinet ministers like shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner and shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne suggested publicly that Labour would move a no confidence motion “immediately” after the government was defeated, and there was a lot of enthusiasm in the party for this approach. Labour MPs were told by whips over the weekend to prepare for a no-confidence vote.

However, Corbyn played down expectations, and, during an interview on Marr over the weekend, only committed to saying it would be “soon” rather than immediate.

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His reticence stems from the fact Labour wouldn’t pass no confidence in the government without the DUP’s support. The DUP so far has said it will not vote no confidence in the government – only in the event the deal with its hated backstop passes. So Labour will lose, although there’s no limit to how many times it can table confidence motions.

Corbyn also knows that, according to policy passed by the party’s members at Labour conference, if a push for a general election fails, then Labour will consider other options “on the table” regarding Brexit, which include a second referendum – something he is both electorally and ideologically reluctant to support.

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One reason Corbyn may have decided to table a no confidence vote immediately is that other Labour MPs have told the Observer that they will table a motion themselves without delay. But the only confidence motions tabled by the leader of the opposition have to be given parliamentary time.

If Corbyn’s no confidence vote passes, that gives 14 days for MPs to try and cobble together a government that commands the confidence of the House. Then there’s another confidence vote on this. If the proposed new government fails to win that vote, then there’s a general election.

However, at the moment, without May’s deal passing, there is no majority for Corbyn’s confidence motion passing. If the government decides to opt for no deal, or it seems like that option has become its policy, however, then enough frontbenchers would resign and Tory MPs would rebel to no-confidence the government. But it’s unlikely the government will actively pursue no deal, as May has been against no deal and her government has been busy briefing about what a disaster it would be.