Theresa May Stays but Only in Name

A thin victory in the no-confidence vote leaves no one really running the country.

The political artist Kaya Mar stands with his painting depicting Prime Minister Theresa May playing a violin in Westminster on Jan 16. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
The political artist Kaya Mar stands with his painting depicting Prime Minister Theresa May playing a violin in Westminster on Jan 16. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Theresa May remains in office—but not necessarily in power. Though the British prime minister survived Wednesday’s vote of no confidence in Parliament, her thin 19-vote victory is hardly a sign that she has regained control of the House of Commons, or even of her own fractious Conservative Party. Meanwhile, her chief opponent, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, appears reluctant to seize control of the Brexit issue himself.

All of which suggests that, at the moment, the British government has lost control of its own flagship Brexit policy, and the United Kingdom is drifting rudderless toward an unknown future that may or may not include membership in the European Union.

On Tuesday night May’s government saw her withdrawal agreement with the EU defeated by 230 votes—the heaviest parliamentary defeat in British political history. Corbyn denounced May’s cabinet as “zombie government” that has “lost control … [and] is no longer able to govern,” and he called for the Commons to oust her. The house declined to do so. Conservative rebels lined up with the tiny Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party—which has been vocal in denouncing May’s deal with the EU, but on whose votes May’s government relies for its slim majority—to keep her in office.

After surviving the vote on Wednesday evening, she announced that she would be reaching out to senior opposition figures to try to broker a compromise over her EU deal. Yet the scale of Tuesday’s rebellion, from both pro- and anti-Brexiters, makes it hard to see what kind of alternative deal could unite both wings of her bitterly divided party. Nor does Brussels appear very willing to renegotiate.

So the initiative has now passed to Corbyn, should he wish to take it, but early signs are that the Labour leader isn’t eager to do so. Labour’s formal position, adopted at its conference in Liverpool last year, commits the party to press for a general election. Failing that, according to the conference resolution, “all options are on the table,” including campaigning for a second referendum.

Yet Corbyn has so far defied his overwhelmingly anti-Brexit and pro-second referendum party membership by refusing to endorse what its supporters label a “People’s Vote” that would likely reverse Brexit. The reasons for Corbyn’s fence-sitting are twofold. Many Brexit supporters come from the left-behind communities of Britain’s former industrial heartlands, and Labour strategists such as Owen Jones have argued that their votes are essential to an eventual Labour victory.

Labour members who favor another referendum—including 70 Labour members of parliament who came out for one Wednesday morning—argue that polls show a majority of people who voted Labour in 2017 support a rerun of the 2016 referendum.

But the more profound reason for Corbyn’s reluctance to back a People’s Vote is “that he’s always been deeply skeptical about the EU,” said one former senior aide to ex-Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair who now works as a government-relations consultant. “He thinks [the EU] is a globalist organization that’s basically on the side of bosses and international capital.”

If Britain leaves the EU, the aide said, Corbyn and his deputy, John McDonnell, “think it’s going to be easier to get through some of their flagship policies” such as pro-worker labor reforms and renationalization of industry.

That hard-left agenda is not shared by a majority of Corbyn’s parliamentary colleagues, many of whom are also losing patience with their leader’s tactical prevarication. “If [Corbyn] vacillates and sits on the fence I’m afraid he is going to get splinters in a place he doesn’t want,” Labour MP David Lammy told the Commons during Wednesday’s no-confidence debate.

The pro-Labour press has also been vocal in calling for Corbyn to switch to the party’s plan B and back a referendum. “Labour’s hour has come. Until now, Labour’s voice has been almost unheard in the greatest debate of our time,” the influential Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee wrote Tuesday. “Whatever his own views, [Corbyn] has no other course but to … listen to his own party, who go about in T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit.’”

People’s Vote aside, the Labour leadership have at least reached clarity on two key points. Corbyn has officially committed the party to opposing a no-deal Brexit. The Labour opposition, coupled with the votes of anti-Brexit Conservatives, makes a solid parliamentary majority that effectively rules out the possibility of Britain crashing out of the EU on March 29 with no deal in place, an economically disastrous outcome that would (by the government’s own estimation) wipe up to 9 percent off GDP in 15 years.

The other Labour commitment is to extending Article 50, the clause in the European Constitution that regulates the departure of member states from the union. May should ask Brussels “to give time for a consensus to be found,” McDonnell told the BBC Wednesday. The former Conservative minister and close May ally Andrea Leadsom insisted on the flagship Today show on BBC radio that “we are clear we won’t be delaying article 50. We won’t be revoking it.” But if May refuses, the voting bloc of Labour and Tory opponents of Brexit could jointly force her to do so.

Corbyn, too, could find his own hand forced by a similar backbench rebellion. A group of Labour MPs have been telling British political journalists—so far anonymously—that they are considering an amendment that would force a parliamentary vote on a second referendum in defiance of Labour’s leadership. Commons speaker John Bercow has helped facilitate such insurgencies by ignoring parliamentary convention and allowing amendments from rank-and-file MPs to be immediately debated—effectively depriving the government of its customary control of parliamentary business.

A key figure in the battle for Labour’s policy on a second referendum is Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer. At last year’s Labour conference, Starmer won a standing ovation for his vocal support of a second referendum. Starmer has so far officially toed Corbyn’s ambiguous line on a People’s Vote, but one former Labour colleague of Starmer’s says he is “considering breaking ranks” to emerge to challenge Corbyn on a People’s Vote—and ultimately for the party leadership.

“Keir is a different generation from Corbyn. He plans to be around for a long time—and wants to be remembered for having been on the right side of history now.” And the stakes could not be higher.

“If Labour backs a second referendum now,” said the source, “then that’s the end of Brexit. Game over.”

Corbyn and his top lieutenants, meanwhile, have been hinting that they will instead continue to bring motions of no confidence in an attempt to chip away at May’s authority. Such a strategy might, if it succeeds, win them the general election that remains Labour’s chief stated strategic goal. But at the same time it risks allowing May’s government to run down the clock and scare a large enough cross-party section of moderate MPs into backing an amended deal—or a soft version of Brexit known as Norway-plus.

May, for her part, insists that she is determined to press on with getting her deal—or something like it—through Parliament. She promised to immediately start talks with both her own Conservative rebels and opposition parties “in a constructive spirit” to seek a deal that could win the support of the Commons. She also assured MPs that she was willing to listen to any ideas that are “genuinely negotiable” with Brussels, though far from all of her colleagues were impressed. “Despite lacking a majority she seeks to dictate terms, not negotiate them,” Conservative MP Nick Boles complained to the BBC.

May has until Monday to come back to the Commons with new proposals—which will then be at risk of amendment by various insurgent groups, including referendum backers.

What seems to be definitely off the table is any chance of a breakthrough in negotiations with Brussels—unless May abandons her long-standing “red lines” such as ending free movement of goods and people into Britain, ruling out a permanent customs union, and ending the jurisdiction of EU law.

“If the United Kingdom chooses to let its red lines change in future … then the European Union would be ready immediately to … respond favorably,” EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told reporters Wednesday, calling the defeat of May’s deal an “opportunity” for the U.K. to stay more closely aligned with the EU.

Most of the “constructive” ideas that May will be hearing over the next few days are likely to flounder against the hard reality of the EU’s tough negotiating stance—first and foremost, that membership of Europe’s Customs Union must include free movement of goods and people, which is anathema to the anti-immigrant right wing of the Conservative Party. Indeed one of the most popular Brexit options being raised by moderate MPs—joining Norway, Iceland, and Lichtenstein in the European Economic Area, a group of countries closely aligned to EU laws but not part of the Union—has already been firmly rejected by top politicians in the area’s member states.

Ultimately, therefore, the terms of Brexit will be dictated not by the British Parliament but by Brussels. For all the Brexit supporters’ ideas of taking back control, the EU will have the power of veto over any new deal that May might succeed in cobbling together.

That deadlock could make the solution rejected by May and so far resisted by Corbyn—another referendum—the last feasible option remaining once all others have been ruled out either by Parliament or by Brussels. As the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes put it, “once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

Owen Matthews, the author of Stalin's Children, is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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