Faced with a huge historic defeat in the Commons, it would seem Theresa May has opted to pull the meaningful vote on her Brexit deal. It was due to take place tomorrow, but reportedly the Prime Minister told cabinet in an emergency conference call that the vote is off. It is now confirmed that she will be making a statement in the chamber called ‘Exiting the European Union’, followed by a business statement from Andrea Leadsom. These constitute a sure sign that it will be announced the vote is delayed.
What does this mean for her deal and for Labour? First, it’s important to note that she has irritated both MPs and journalists with the way in which this decision was made. In the days and weeks preceding the vote, the PM, her spokespeople and multiple cabinet members had insisted the vote would go ahead despite an anticipated heavy loss for the government. At 11.15am today, Downing Street confirmed this to lobby reporters. Only minutes later, it became clear this was not the case. At a time when the government cannot afford to undermine its credibility and trustworthiness with either politicians or news publications, mishandling this move is particularly unwise.
The consequences of the decision to attempt pulling the vote depend on whether the EU agrees to renegotiate the deal or only make ‘cosmetic’ changes to the political declaration document. You would think May would only pull the vote if she had secured promises that substantial changes to the agreement could be made. Without a significant u-turn on the backstop, which is hugely improbable, it seems unlikely that the government will be able to win a programme motion that would alter the timetable for the meaningful vote.
If May does manage to drastically alter to the timetable and avoid holding the vote on Tuesday, Labour could opt to table a motion of no confidence in the government. More and more Labour MPs are calling on the leadership to do just that. But senior party figures privately admit that it is highly implausible such a motion would be passed by MPs, as it would require the support of the DUP. Although the confidence-and-supply partner hasn’t been supplying much confidence recently, Arlene Foster has said they would only consider bringing down the government by officially ripping up their agreement if the deal passed. Instead, Labour could table a censure motion against the PM, which is more likely to get cross-party approval, just as its efforts led to the government being found in contempt of parliament last week. This wouldn’t lead to resignations by default, but would apply further pressure.
Jeremy Corbyn has responded to reports the vote has been pulled, commenting: “The government has decided Theresa May’s Brexit deal is so disastrous that it has taken the desperate step of delaying its own vote at the eleventh hour.
“We have known for at least two weeks that Theresa May’s worst of all worlds deal was going to be rejected by parliament because it is damaging for Britain. Instead, she ploughed ahead when she should have gone back to Brussels to renegotiate or called an election so the public could elect a new government that could do so.
“We don’t have a functioning government. While Theresa May continues to botch Brexit, our public services are at breaking point and our communities suffer from dire under-investment. Labour’s alternative plan for a jobs first deal must take centre stage in any future talks with Brussels.”