Her deal went down to a defeat of 230, the largest ever defeat for a Government and the largest Tory rebellion. But it was the Prime Minister’s response that almost matters more. It was perhaps the shrewdest political move of her career and recent years. In one fell swoop she came back, not out, not down, but triumphant. She stood up, spoke calmly, and in one powerful move seized back the control that had been slowly sapped away by Parliament, moved onto the front foot and boxed in Jeremy Corbyn by forcing a Vote of No Confidence in her and her Government. It seems counter intuitive, but in this topsy turvy time we live in for politics, it’s quite the opposite. She secured her position, authority and future.
The last day of debate on Tuesday was opened with a barnstorming performance by the rhetorical powerhouse Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, and closed out with a heartfelt plea from the PM. Watching Cox you couldn’t help but feel that had the government organised for him to sit in a meeting room for days on end until all MPs had come and asked their questions and made their points relating to the PMs deal, it may have past, so convincing can he be. It would have meant heading off points of confusion early on before MPs got so dug in to their positions and opinions. This might also have given the Government a clearer idea of what they could have given or changed for MPs to get it through, rather than doing this now at such a late hour and costing so much in the meantime. But we are where we are.
How did the PM seize back power in place of a defeat that should have left her bowed low? She stood up at the dispatch box and gave the most surprising speech she has ever given. Starting out with her favourite phrase of late she said Parliament had spoken and the Government would listen; it looked like we were in for another standard speech from her that would change nothing. But then she got going. In one fell swoop snatched back power, slapped down Tory splits and MPs suspicions of her aims, and forced Corbyn to do the one thing he didn’t want and leave him in trouble with his party membership.
May calmly but forcefully told MPs that she would now open up discussions with senior MPs from all parties and Brexit factions to try and come to a consensus on what the House will back. She followed this up by quashing those that claim she is running down the clock to Brexit in the hopes of bouncing enough MPs to vote for her deal, by saying this ran the risk of a No Deal which is not what the Government wants. But her masterstroke delivered studiously and generously (even as you could see the twinkle in her eye and the corner of her mouth go up in full knowledge of what she was doing) was to make an apparent concession in the wake of the historic defeat.
Not able to go back to the EU after such a defeat and knowing she had to deal with Parliament to achieve anything, she “graciously” offered a concession to Corbyn – that if he wanted to call a Vote of No Confidence, the Government wouldn’t try and slow play it and delay, but would accept the vote and give over Wednesday to debating and voting on it. With nowhere else to go Corbyn got to his feet, thundered his moral outrage (an approach he uses on everything and that’s wearing thin) and boomed defiantly, as he walked willingly into the PMs trap, that he was calling for such a vote.
The thing is though he didn’t want the vote. It’s the last thing he wanted. He knew he couldn’t win and thus would look foolish and like he’s playing politics by calling one. But had he not taken the PM up on her offer he would have looked weak and like he was playing politics. It was catch 22 for him. But not to have accepted would have been worse, his party, supporters and other parties were all pressuring him to call the vote, and frustration and anger at his refusal was growing. Additionally had he not walked into the trap, the PM had offered to accept other parties moving such a vote, which would have made Corbyn look weak too.
In having a vote called against her, in the full knowledge that she was going to win (as she did by 19 votes), she has stolen a march on all opposed to her, be they opposition MPs or Tory rebels from either side of the debate. The whole thing is a power move to take back the initiative in the same way that winning the Conservatives’ confidence vote has allowed within the party. It’s just on a larger scale this time.
Bringing the vote so quickly, and before the Government are required to return on Monday with Plan B, gives them some breathing room post Monday. In the days between the lost vote on Tuesday and coming back on Monday, much discussion and rumour would have swirled around Parliament about what Plan B would be. Positions would have been taken and dug into. Plans to move more power from Downing Street to Parliament would have been hatched and possibly put into action. You could even have seen a few Tory MPs come together and say that they would vote against the Government in a confidence vote so that they could stop a No Deal Brexit that was looking more likely to them. By holding the confidence vote 24hours after losing on Tuesday, they cut the time short stopping any of this coming to fruition, thus buying time after Monday.
Of course, what this doesn’t do is change the minds of the 116 MPs Theresa May has to win over to get a deal through, and a deal that the EU will agree to also. How she does this isn’t going to be easy, if possible, and as talks with MPs go on, inevitably it will frustrate some MPs as they start to feel too much or too little is given away to those opposing their views. Her breathing room wont last for long, Parliament will start to reassert itself, but it will help in the short term.
Labour were already complaining they weren’t invited to discussions on Wednesday, but of course they weren’t as they were trying to bring it down. The moment the Government won the vote last night, May announced talks with leaders of all parties would start that night. Corbyn in his response put conditions on his involvement, a move that will be seen as him playing politics and not putting the country first. As of the PMs speech on the steps of Downing Street at 10pm last night, he still refused to join the talks.
Corbyn is of course trying to do all he can to not have to back a second referendum – it being his party’s policy, agreed at conference. His rank and file membership is loosing patience with him on this and of course it seems to them that he’s ignoring the people that he claims to represent and speak for above all others. Instead Corbyn, knowing he was going to loose the vote, announced plans early Wednesday to call multiple No Confidence Votes in the coming weeks. May’s move with yesterday’s No Confidence Vote won’t make these easier should they come about, and they will get harder to win if her talks with Parliament and then the EU don’t bare fruit and compromise.
Nonetheless this doesn’t take away from the power of the PMs move. This was the move of a woman not planning to go anywhere but to carry out the mandate she feels she has a moral duty to deliver. By winning the confidence vote she has the strength to say that Parliament and the people want her to do this and just as importantly for her, to say this to the EU. This contrasts with Corbyn looking weak, ineffectual and not representing the grass roots of the party or those that voted to leave, the wishes of whom he said he’d follow.
Feature Image ©Licensed to i-Images Picture Agency. 01/08/2016. London, United Kingdom. Prime Ministers Official Portrait. Picture by Andrew Parsons / i-Images. Licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0 (OGL).