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16 January 2019

Theresa May defeats Jeremy Corbyn’s motion of no confidence

As expected, the prime minister won comfortably. But tonight’s result lays the conditions for future rebellion in both parties.

By Patrick Maguire

Theresa May has defeated the motion of no confidence in her government tabled by Jeremy Corbyn by 325 votes to 306.

The result is as expected, with Conservative Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionists voting with May despite the landslide defeat of her Brexit deal yesterday.  

Senior Labour figures, most notably John McDonnell, have long said that any confidence vote would be unwinnable until such time that the 10 DUP MPs withdrew their support from the Conservative; and tonight’s result serves to illustrate that fundamental truth.

That is not to say, however, that the result of the next confidence vote Labour table will be a similarly foregone conclusion. While the prime minister’s margin of victory was comfortable, it is not unassailable and she could well be vulnerable to a rebellion from hardline Brexiteers should she pursue options such as a permanent customs union in the coming days in search of opposition votes.

What it also underlines is the fact that without the DUP – whose 10 votes would have sunk the government – the prime minister has no majority to govern. 

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The result also poses challenges for the Labour leadership. Advocates for a second referendum on the opposition benches will claim tonight’s vote as evidence that the party cannot secure a general election and demand that, per the terms of the Brexit policy passed at its conference in September, it shifts to supporting a fresh plebiscite on the deal.

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The leadership, however, has made clear that its priorities are tabling further confidence votes and attempting to build a consensus in parliament for its own Brexit plans. With only 71 Labour MPs having declared for a second referendum this morning (out of a cross-party total of around 150), both have more chances of success as far as the existing parliamentary arithmetic goes.

Corbyn’s inevitable failure to unconditionally endorse or prioritise a second referendum in the wake of this evening’s vote will nonetheless only further alienate that rump of Labour MPs, and will likely precipitate an attempt to force his hand via a Commons amendment in the coming days. It could also call into doubt the willingness of the other opposition parties – all of whom support a second referendum – to support any further motions he tables.

So while this evening’s vote does not change anything in the immediate term, it does create the condition for a breakdown in discipline on both the government and opposition benches.