Labour’s real mission was to run down the clock – and it succeeded

While no one connected with Team Corbyn will look back on today with any fondness, they got what they came for.

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Gone in 60 minutes: Jeremy Corbyn U-turned on plans to table a motion of no confidence in Theresa May, only after an hour after his aides told the press they would be tabling one.

What happened? Well, under a longstanding arrangement, the government shares its statements with the opposition ahead of time, at which point Labour had already briefed that, unless May tabled the meaningful vote, it would be bringing forward a motion of confidence in her. As May was already set to announce a date for the vote, the Labour leadership abandoned its plans.

The line that Labour is pushing out via social media and its proxies is that it has driven May to commit to a time – this is about as believable as someone shouting “You can’t fire me, I quit”, but to be frank while no one in the Labour leadership will look back on this afternoon with any fondness, their confidence vote gambit has already done what they needed it to do. Why?

Well, the important thing to understand about a confidence motion in Theresa May is that it did not matter, for two reasons. The first is that, although by convention, a confidence motion in an individual minister or in this case the Prime Minister herself ought to trigger the resignation of that minister if successfully passed, there is no legal mechanism to force a minister or Prime Minister to follow such a vote if they don’t want to. 

The second is, unlike a motion of confidence in the government as a whole, there is no onus for the government to create time for the motion to be discussed and voted on, so the motion would have had to wait until Labour’s next opposition day debate. The Labour Party has no more opposition day debates left to use this year and it has none scheduled yet for 2019 (though more will be along at some point).

Ultimately, this was a non-binding vote that was going to be held at some point in the future on a day yet to be ascertained. Its real function wasn’t to hurt the government, but to give Labour something to talk about for a day or so to distract from what the party plans to do on Brexit.

Under the compromise hammered out at Labour party conference, the Labour party is committed to first vote down any Brexit deal that does not pass its six tests for Brexit – given that the six tests are designed to be failed, that’s any Brexit deal – to seek a general election, and if one is not forthcoming, to support another referendum. The Labour leadership wants to delay the point at which it moves away from seeking an election to supporting another referendum, because some are Brexiteers and all of them fear that a more concrete position will harm their chances of winning.

What they hope is that if they run down the clock, one of the options, whether that be “facilitate the passage of Theresa May’s deal to prevent a non-negotiated exit” or “support a second referendum”, will become less politically fraught.

And while the way they have run down the clock today has been embarrassing at Westminster, it can be spun in two ways that are thoroughly comfortable for the Labour leadership: that they are setting the terms of debate and the mainstream press is being mean about them. Although this isn’t how they wanted their confidence gambit to play out, they will take comfort that it has done its job at least.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.