After suffering the biggest government defeat in history, Theresa May invited Jeremy Corbyn to put down a confidence vote in her government – and gave other opposition parties the opportunity if Labour didn’t do so.
This was the tiniest scrap of saving face the Prime Minister could muster – getting in there before Corbyn could announce that he would seek a vote of no confidence in the government, which he did a few minutes after her statement.
The motion was defeated on Wednesday 16 January, a day after MPs rejected May’s Brexit deal by 230 votes, by 325 votes to 306. But Labour is very likely to try again.
How does it work?
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, as happened with May’s snap election in 2017, or if a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government can be cobbled together within 14 days.
Labour is trying to bring about the latter, in the hope that if the government loses the no confidence vote then it will either be able to form a government itself in the ensuing 14 days (pretty impossible, considering the make-up of the House), or the government will again be defeated in the second confidence motion after the 14 days, and there will be a general election.
Will there be an election?
It’s unlikely. While Labour will have the support of other opposition parties, the DUP has consistently said it will not vote no confidence in the government unless the withdrawal agreement including the backstop is passed. The deal emphatically didn’t pass, so it doesn’t look like much has changed to change the DUP’s mind.
Without the DUP onside, Labour would need Tory rebels instead. The Brexiteer group, the ERG, which contains the hardest-core Brexit rebels, has said it will support May in the confidence vote, so there would need to be enough Tory MPs on the Remain side of things willing to lose the whip by voting against their own party being in government, which at the moment seems very unlikely.
So if MPs do have confidence in the government, what happens next?
The Leader of the Opposition is free to put down as many confidence motions in the government as he likes, and is entitled to parliamentary time for them, but to have any political or practical impact he will only want to try again if something changes in the balance of the Commons that suggests he would win.
In the meantime, there will now be increased pressure on Labour’s leadership to begin officially campaigning for a second referendum. This is because, 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 Corbyn is both electorally and ideologically reluctant to support.