Theresa May Likely To Survive No Confidence Vote, Next Steps Are Unclear

Theresa May is likely to survive today's no confidence vote, but what happens after that is unclear given that changes to her Brexit deal seem unlikely.

One day after suffering a humiliating defeat in the House of Commons over her Brexit deal, British Prime Minister Thersa May faces a no-confidence vote that in theory could bring down her government but which she seems likely to survive:

LONDON — After suffering the worst parliamentary defeat in modern times over her plans for leaving the European Union, Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, braced for another day of turmoil on Wednesday, when she will face a vote of no confidence in her battered government.

On Tuesday Mrs. May lost by a crushing margin, 432 to 202, when Parliament voted on her plan for European Union withdrawal, or Brexit, as the clock ticks toward March 29 when Britain is scheduled to leave.

Lawmakers will spend much of Wednesday debating whether Mrs. May’s government should continue in power before voting at around 7 p.m. on a motion that could, in theory, lead to a general election.

That is an unlikely outcome, analysts say, because many of those who voted against Mrs. May’s withdrawal plan, including hard-line pro-Brexit rebels in her Conservative Party, and a group of 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, have said they will support the government on Wednesday.

They argue that they want to replace Mrs. May’s deal, not her, and they prefer her badly weakened leadership to the prospect of an election that could bring the opposition Labour Party to power.

Nonetheless, another day of drama and political crisis in London underscores the extent to which Mrs. May’s strategy for leaving the European Union is now in disarray, leaving Britain in a perilous position, just 10 weeks before the country is scheduled to depart the bloc.

Ordinarily, a prime minister would be expected to resign after suffering a big defeat on a signature bill, but Brexit has rewritten the rules of British politics. So Mrs. May, who is scheduled to answer questions in Parliament at noon, can expect to survive the no confidence debate that will then begin.

After Tuesday’s defeat, Mrs. May’s opponents are focusing on an array of contradictory objectives, demonstrating that more than two and a half years after Britons voted to leave the European Union, their politicians have failed to reach any consensus on how to do so.

One faction in Parliament advocates a more complete and abrupt break from Europe than the one the prime minister has negotiated with Brussels; another supports Mrs. May’s plan; another wants a softer Brexit than she has proposed; and yet another still hopes for no Brexit at all.

Assuming that Mrs. May survives the day as expected, she has promised consultations and to reach out to political opponents — though not the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn — before she has to return to tell lawmakers on Monday how she plans to proceed.

For now, Mrs. May seems still to hope that she can do this without a fundamental change that would soften her plan and keep closer ties to the European Union, something that would almost certainly provoke resignations from pro-Brexit members of her own cabinet.

She is unlikely to win support from significant numbers of opposition lawmakers, however, unless she embraces the notion of keeping a permanent customs union with the bloc, a change that would prevent Britain from having an independent trade policy and keep it tied to some European rules.

Much like yesterday’s debate in the House of Commons, today’s debate on the no-confidence vote seems likely to take up the majority of the day, with a final vote scheduled again for 7:00 p.m. London time, or 2:00 p.m. Eastern time here in the United States. For the reasons noted above, it seems likely that, notwithstanding yesterday’s vote, May will survive this vote for two reasons. First, while she lost the support of more than 100 Conservative backbenchers in yesterday’s vote, it’s unlikely that these Tories will vote against the government because they don’t want to risk the possibility that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would be given the opportunity to try to form a government or that there would be another snap election the outcome of which would be highly uncertain. Secondly, the Democratic Unionist Party, with whom May had entered a confidence and supply agreement after the disappointing results of the 2017 snap election left the Tories short of an outright majority in the House of Commons, has already said that it will support the government in today’s vote. Unless that changes, May will survive this challenge on a party-line vote.

Once that happens, though, it’s unclear what happens next. May has until Monday to attempt to negotiate some kind of concessions from the European Union that would fix the Brexit deal sufficiently to gain approval. The problem she faces in that respect are multifaceted. First, as I noted yesterday, the negotiators for the E.U. have made clear that there is very little room on their side for changes to the deal that has been reached between the U.K. and the E.U. Second, even if changes are made, they would need to be approved not only by the House of Commons by also by the members of the European Union itself and it’s unclear if that would happen. Finally, it’s entirely unclear what changes May can make to the deal she negotiated that would make up for the massive deficit she’s facing based on yesterday’s vote. Somehow, she’d need to cobble together a majority from dissenters that include people who oppose the deal because it’s too harsh, others who oppose it because it doesn’t constitute a clear enough break with the E.U., and still others who don’t support Brexit at all.  Amid all of this May doesn’t appear to have any real guidance regarding what, if anything, she can do to change the deal in a way that will get sufficient support to pass. All this suggests that she won’t be able to come up with any significant changes at all, and that means the entire future of Brexit, and May’s government, will be up in the air.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:
  2. Kathy says:

    I hear the UK has a Ministry of Magic. They should be brought in ASAP.

    More seriously, May should survive a no confidence vote because a) her party doesn’t want to see Labor take over, as mentioned in the post, and b) no one in her party wants any of the responsibility for the Brexit mess.

  3. grumpy realist says:

    @Kathy: Nobody wants nuttin’. A lot of the Remainers are in alt over the vote because they think that they’ll now get a second referendum; the Brexiteers are in alt because they think this is just dandy going towards their beloved “clean Brexit.” (The same people who think that stumbling out into “WTO rules only” is fantastic but at the same time the EU will be so terrified that the EU will give them everything they want.) And the intelligent analysers (such as the EUreferendum group) are just putting their heads in their hands and praying.

    I think at some point the EU is just going to get fed up and let the Brits go off the cliff. I know I would. (The Brexiteers haven’t yet figured out that as soon as the other side has hedged against damages as much as they can, there’s no reason for the other side to NOT let the whole careening chariot run off the edge if that’s considered the best way to teach the U.K. a lesson and to ram home the message that the U.K. isn’t as important as it thinks it is.)

  4. Joe says:


    In my very low-information estimation, she survived no confidence because (a) no one wants her job and (b) no one trusts anyone more to have her job.

  5. JohnSF says:

    It’s all down to Parties, loyalties (hah!) factions and numbers.

    Neither ERG Conservative rebels nor DUP want to risk a Labour govt. so long as May has not ruled out a No Deal Brexit.

    And Remainer Conservatives don’t trust a Corbyn govt. to avoid a bad Brexit anyway, and still hope current Commons can rule out No Deal either with or despite May and Cabinet.

    Also at least SOME Labour seniors are IMHO happy to see May preside over Brexit hoping all the blame sticks to the Conservatives.

    I’ve said it before: May is making a massive tactical error, refusing to rule out No Deal, probably from unwillingness to rouse the anger of Conservative Brexiteers in party and media, and not wanting to lose a lever for potential breach in Opposition

    But like the Hulk, Brexiteers are always going to be on the brink of rage anyway.
    Unless No Deal is ruled out May has ZERO leverage to force ERG/DUP to support her plan.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    @JohnSF: I suspect that the ERG would absolutely love it if the U.K. were to crash out with no deal. Bunch of disaster capitalists, the lot of them. And the DUP are salivating at the possibility of bringing down the GFA. Complete with walls and a revitalised IRA working its mischief.

    I suspect that at some point down the pipeline the rest of the U.K. will just get fed up with N.I. and the continued funds they demand (especially if bombs are exploding in London) and just boot them out.