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16 January 2019

What does Theresa May’s survival mean for Brexit?

The prospects of another election or a further referendum are both receding.

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May has, as expected, seen off the motion of no confidence in her leadership, but by a slightly larger margin than she might have feared, thanks to the deliberate abstentions of Ivan Lewis and John Woodcock, both former Labour MPs who have resigned the whip, and the support of Sylvia Hermon, who told the New Statesman earlier today not only that she would not be voting to keep May in office but that she will never vote to trigger an election as long as Jeremy Corbyn leads the Labour party.

Coupled with the ill-judged photo opportunity by 71 of the 82 Labour supporters of a referendum re-run earlier today, it leaves both May and Corbyn boxed in if they sincerely want to avoid a no-deal exit.

Corbyn would need to win the support of nine Conservatives to have a chance of winning a confidence vote and in practice Woodcock and Lewis both might well vote with May in the event of a close vote, raising the bar to a still-harder-to-achieve 11 Conservative rebels. It makes the prospect of an early election look very remote.

Although the Labour leadership is arguing, correctly, in both public and in the Shadow Cabinet that Margaret Thatcher brought multiple motions of confidence before finally succeeding in dislodging James Callaghan, the crucial missing part of the story is that on each occasion she had a fresh reason to suspect she might win: failing after the loss of Callaghan’s majority following two by-elections in 1977 and succeeding after the unsuccessful vote for devolution in Scotland in 1979.

Realistically there is no prospect of wearing down the Conservative hold on office through repeated attrition alone.

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But the path to putting the Brexit question to the public by other means also looks to be blocked. That supporters of a second referendum cannot even command a public majority within the Labour party – or even among just Labour backbenchers – makes it very easy for the Labour leadership not to support a referendum re-run.

That will increase the pressure on all sides to do something to prevent no deal, whether that is through simply acquiescing to the passage of May’s deal as it stands or, more likely, through revisions to the political declaration. But the possibility of no deal –the legal default – remains a large and live possibility.

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