One of the more exhausting subplots of last month’s parliamentary drama was Labour’s will-they-won’t-they routine on the question of when it would table a motion of no confidence in the government.
Team Corbyn resisted doing so, instead tabling a meaningless censure motion against the prime minister herself that received neither parliamentary time nor the support from the DUP or Tory Brexiteers it would have needed to succeed.
They arrived at this fudge for two reasons. The first and most obvious is that they would not have won. A formal vote of no confidence in the government itself is one of only two routes to achieve a general election under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. But while almost every opposition MP would vote against the government in such a scenario, for obvious reasons, the 10 DUP MPs – guarantors of Theresa May’s majority – have said they will not do so unless her Brexit deal, and with it the Irish backstop, passes.
Legally, failing to defeat the government in a confidence motion at the first time of asking is no problem for the opposition: it can simply try again. Politically, however, failure would have had profound consequences for the Labour leadership.
Pro-Europeans on the opposition benches believe that the Brexit policy passed at Labour conference last September mandates the party to advocate for a new referendum if it cannot get a general election, which a victory for the government in a confidence motion would suggest was the case. This is why they spent much of December attempting to bounce Corbyn into a tabling confidence motion they knew, and he knew, would fail.
The certainty of failure for now has been cited explicitly as an excuse for not pushing ahead with a confidence motion by senior Labour figures – most notably John McDonnell, who said Labour must wait until such time that the DUP had withdrawn their support from the government. That hasn’t yet happened, so, by their own criteria, we shouldn’t expect Labour to issue a no confidence motion anytime soon.
So why have Labour frontbenchers been saying otherwise on the airwaves this morning? Both Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, and Andrew Gwynne, who is shadow communities secretary and more pertinently responsible for Labour’s election planning, suggested that Corbyn would move a confidence motion “immediately” once May’s deal had been defeated.
In doing so they contravened both the stated position of the party leadership and the basic political logic of only moving once they were sure they could win. Unsurprisingly, Team Corbyn have been more circumspect than their most enthusiastic outriders in the shadow cabinet. A source stresses that a confidence motion would not “necessarily” be immediate and, addressing reporters after PMQs, Corbyn’s spokesman euphemistically dismissed Gardiner’s comments as “speculation”.
A Labour spokesman tells the NS: “If the government is defeated next week, it will clearly have lost the confidence of parliament and there should be a general election. We have always said that it’s a matter of when, not if we table a motion of no confidence and we’ll judge the timing day by day.” Regardless of how tough a game its frontbenchers are talking, the odds are still stacked against Tuesday’s vote on the Brexit deal being followed by another tabled by Corbyn.