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16 January 2019

Theresa May can’t keep her party together forever, and four other things we learnt at PMQs

The Prime Minister retreated into vagueness, but she won’t be able to escape definition for long. 

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May will almost certainly survive tonight’s confidence vote, but she might not make it past the next one

Today’s PMQs were always going to be overshadowed by the looming vote of no confidence in Theresa May’s government. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Caroline Lucas, the solitary Green MP, are bound to vote against her. The 10 DUP MPs plus Sylvia Hermon, the independent Unionist MP, will vote for her as the DUP have signed a confidence and supply deal while Hermon will never vote in a way that brings the possibility of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government closer.

That means that if just nine Conservative MPs switch sides, then the United Kingdom could be just 14 days away from the start of a general election campaign.

But May cannot pass any Brexit deal without disappointing far more than nine Tory MPs, so she kept her answers whenever she was grilled about possible next steps as broad and as vague as she could.

The problem for May is that vagueness will be enough to get her through this confidence vote, but however she wishes to resolve the parliamentary deadlock, she will have to become less vague and more precise and whichever option she picks will alienate somebody. Margaret Thatcher had multiple attempts at dislodging James Callaghan before she finally succeeded and Jeremy Corbyn may well end up achieving similarly deferred success.

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A second referendum almost certainly isn’t going to happen

Theresa May doesn’t want it. Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t want it. And even some of the most committed pro-Europeans are now publicly accepting that there is no majority for it: Ken Clarke became the latest today in the House, saying that there was no majority for a Brexit that takes the United Kingdom out of the customs and regulatory orbit of the  European Union and no majority to cancel Brexit either.

Theresa May has a new attack line as far as Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit go

For a long time, May’s preferred line of attack against the Labour leader was that he wanted to block Brexit: a position that he has never held, but Conservative and Labour strategists believe would harm Labour if voters believe that he does.

She has now switched tack, criticising Corbyn not for wanting to block Brexit but for his vagueness on the question. Whether something has shifted in what the Tory party’s own polling tells them about the impact of saying that Corbyn wants to block Brexit or that she was simply failing to land that particular line of attack is an open question.

An election called on Brexit wouldn’t stay there

We know that if you ask voters how the Brexit stance of the parties would influence their votes, the Labour party vote share goes down, across every pollster, regardless of whether the poll in question has been commissioned by a pro-European campaign organisation or a neutral body.

But we also know that something must be wrong with these polls because how voters tell us they will behave is at odds with their actual behaviour. The difficulty is that it is easy to get people to tell us how they would vote if the next election is solely about Brexit but it is hard to know what the next election will actually be about.

We got a vague idea today: the opening exchanges were about Brexit, but both Corbyn and MPs from across the House quickly pulled the focus onto other issues. While the Brexit question might be the most important as far as the shape of British public policy in the future goes, it wouldn’t be the only issue – and for the moment at least is still a second-order issue for most voters.

The Liberal Democrats still haven’t worked out how best to explain the Coalition

Vince Cable used a rare question to ask the Prime Minister about how she would work with other parties to resolve the Brexit crisis – but was derailed by jeering when he mentioned his time in coalition.

The Liberal Democrats still don’t have a strong, unified line on their time in government and it really shows at times like this when it gets thrown in their faces by all sides.

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