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15 January 2019

Theresa May can’t pass a Brexit deal. Jeremy Corbyn can’t win a confidence vote. What now?

Parliament is deadlocked.

By Stephen Bush

What happens now? That’s the question being asked after the withdrawal agreement went down to record-breaking defeat – the biggest since the 19th century and the largest in the history of modern party politics.

The first parliamentary setpiece event is in many ways the most predictable: a motion of no confidence in Theresa May’s government. Although there are circumstances in which committed Conservative Remainers and devout Conservative Brexiteers might each opt to vote with Jeremy Corbyn to trigger a fresh election, neither point has yet been reached, nor will it be reached by tomorrow.

Instead, we will be treated to the surreal and ridiculous display of Conservative MPs who just voted against the government’s flagship policy, on an issue that will define the next quarter-century, voting that they do, in fact, have confidence in May’s government.

That will have two immediate consequences. The first is that it will increase the volume from those people calling for the Labour leadership to support a fresh Brexit vote. The second is that it will make it easier for Labour MPs who fear both a no deal exit and the electoral consequences in their own constituencies if they block Brexit to vote in favour of a Brexit deal, even if it is one negotiated by Theresa May.

Although just four Labour MPs in the latter group – John Mann, Kevin Barron, Frank Field and Ian Austin – broke the Labour whip to vote for the withdrawal agreement, there are many others like them. What distinguishes that quartet is that they are either all likely to stand down or are already at odds with their local party for one reason or another: Field is currently sitting as an independent following a vote of no confidence locally.

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There’s another group of Labour MPs who fear the economic consequences of no deal and the political costs of no Brexit but aren’t, for one reason or another, inclined to risk being seen in their constituencies as having “prevented an election”. These may feel, just as Labour MPs backing a second vote will, that an unsuccessful confidence motion frees them up to vote how they think best over Brexit.

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It was a remarkable feat on the part of the Labour party whips to keep their rebellion at just four – but they will struggle to do so in future, and their struggles will be all the greater the closer it gets to 29 March, when the UK is set to leave the EU with or without a deal.