The Corner


May Survives: Now What?

Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street following winning a confidence vote, January 16, 2019. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

Theresa May’s government has won the confidence vote 325 to 306. Relative to the catastrophic defeat of May’s Brexit deal yesterday, this result must be a welcome respite for the government. The question, as always, is: Now what?

May won the confidence vote, yes, but she now has the impossible task of forging cross-party cooperation in the Commons. The fact that May’s Withdrawal Agreement was defeated 432-to-202 margin on Tuesday signifies that the deal in its current form is completely unworkable. It was dead, to begin with. So what are the living alternatives?

A different deal?

To be able to approach the EU and get a new deal, May would have to appeal to the EU’s interests since they hold all the negotiating power. In other words: May would have to try for an even softer Brexit. However, without at least the removal of the backstop clause, Parliament is almost certain to reject such a deal. Something — not least someone — has got to budge.

 An extension of Article 50 followed by a second referendum?

May opposes tampering with Article 50 on principle — as she should — since it is a betrayal of the 2016 referendum result. Nevertheless, Labour MPs are fighting hard to force Corbyn to endorse a second referendum which polls suggest the majority of Labour Party members now favor. This would require asking the EU to extend Article 50 (the piece of legislation that mandates that Britain will leave on March 29), which they would probably grant since it heightens the chance of no Brexit. Indeed, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said as much when he implied that best course of action at this point would be to cancel Brexit altogether.

But even if he got his wish, a second referendum would not be an easy fix. For instance, what choices would be presented on the ballot a second time around: Remain or a detailed description of how exactly Britain would leave? Given that two years of negotiations have not produced the latter, it seems unlikely that the government could provide it in a matter of weeks; the “voters will be more informed this time” does not convince. Moreover, how would the British people interpret their being asked to vote on the same question again? And what would happen if Britain voted to leave a second time?

No deal?

A default Brexit on March 29th is where Britain is headed according to current law.

But the argument against no deal is in part a political one. There is such feverish terror in the Commons at the prospect of no deal that it could prompt some anti-Brexit Tories to vote against the government in a subsequent confidence vote. May is trying to avoid this at all costs.

A new leader?

It’s safe to assume by this point that there is no humiliation too great to force May to consider resigning. Unlike the Conservative Party, Jeremy Corbyn can trigger multiple confidence votes. He can strike again. The thing — and a big part of the reason he lost this time — is that Corbyn doesn’t actually have any solutions to the Brexit conundrum. Polls suggest he is even less popular than May. (Quite an achievement.)

Now what? indeed.


Madeleine Kearns — Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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