Could Britain’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn inadvertently stumble into achieving what he has so far balked at even attempting: bringing down the Theresa May government? He has tabled a “symbolic” motion of no confidence in her personally while shying away from a motion under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 that could actually produce a general election.
He may not realise it but his motion could actually bring down the Government – if enough Tories become desperate enough to ditch May and put Brexit on hold.
Corbyn said the motion was to “put pressure” on May to name a date for the “meaningful vote” on her Brexit deal – and when she did name a date, he pressed on regardless. This vote has certainly been spun as merely symbolic: that’s how the Guardian saw it , presumably after talking to Labour sources:
“The form of the motion is such that it would not lead to a general election or even the ousting of Theresa May if she were to be defeated – rather it would amount to a symbolic defeat of the prime minister.”
Coincidentally, though, a week earlier, a report from the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee was released here (pdf) on the very subject of confidence votes in the House – with this dire warning: “Any clear expression of ‘no confidence’ could topple Government”.
It explained that, although the two procedures in the FTPA 2011 (confidence vote or two-thirds majority vote) are now the only way an early General Election can come about, the Act did not oust the “pre-existing conventions ” of the old-style confidence vote. The report says:
“While it is correct that only by the statutory provisions of the  Act can a motion of no confidence lead to an early general election, this has in no way affected the ability of the House to express no confidence in the Government through other means. Outside the terms of the Act, if the House were to express no confidence, unless that authority could be restored, the Prime Minister would be expected to give notice that he or she will resign, but only when he or she is in a position to recommend to the Sovereign an alternative person to form a new administration.”
The Government in passing the 2011 Act made clear that it was not intended to interfere with the no confidence conventions of Parliament other than the calling of elections:
“The aim of the Bill is not otherwise to interfere with the conventions which govern the position where the Government loses the confidence of the House. The Government considers that such matters are better left to convention.” (Government response, para 56)
So, on this reading, Corbyn’s “symbolic” motion could be very vexing indeed for Mrs May, not least because there is more likelihood that he would win it than the full-blown FTPA procedure.
A parliamentary expert notes that it is a convention not to see no confidence motions against individuals as resigning matters, even when the individual is the Prime Minister. But if it comes to it (and some anti-Brexit MPs are getting desperately afraid May will plunge Britain into no deal by default), the motion could be amended, not to be FTPA-compliant, but to express no confidence in May’s Government in the old-fashioned way.
So if such a vote passed, the fun and games would really begin. The select committee was adamant: The ability of a government to command the confidence of the Commons is central to its authority to govern. “If the House of Commons as the elected House passes a vote of no confidence, the Government loses this authority to govern” – however the motion is worded. (The FTPA procedure requires specific wording: “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.”)
Options after the vote
So if such a motion is passed, no election could ensue, but it would still be necessary for the Prime Minister to give notice of her resignation and another Prime Minister would have to be found, as was the case before the FTPA: “the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House” (Cabinet Manual pdf). The Select Committee report says:
“Outside the terms of the Act, if the House were to express no confidence in the Government, unless that authority could be restored, the Prime Minister would be expected to give notice that he or she will resign, but only when he or she is in a position to recommend to the Sovereign an alternative person to form a new administration.”
So what would happen? Well, if you think Brexit has been a matter of staggering from disaster to disaster so far …
Without an FTPA vote, MPs would be obliged to find a Government that could stand up to another no confidence vote in the Commons. Conventionally the leader of the Opposition would have first dibs, so would Britain get a new, Corbyn-led Labour government? Not without quite a lot of support from elsewhere in the House: SNP, Lib Dems, Green, Plaid Cymru might be prevailed upon, but they wouldn’t be sufficient to give Corbyn a majority.
So back to the Tories then? But they would have to rustle up a new leader – which is a fairly tortuous process under Conservative Party rules involving a vote of Tory MPs (or several votes) to whittle candidates down to two who would be sent out to the country for a vote of the party members. Time marches on and a “meaningful vote” slips further away.
But, in fact, Britain’s Prime Minister does not have to be the leader of a party at all. Could there be (whisper it) a coalition government led by some popular figure commanding great respect? And, if so, wouldn’t it be (keep it under your hat) made up of and backed by the wettest of the wet remainers, second referendumers and soft-Brexiters from both the main parties plus the Lib Dems and presumably the SNP thrown into the mix?
That would be an irony of the most dramatic kind. Corbyn’s wimping out with a soggy pseudo-confidence vote leaving him fuming, presumably alongside a stony-faced group of Tory ERGers, sitting on some small area of the opposition benches while a strong Government of National Unity crowds out the Commons and sets to to get us out of this whole awful pickle.
No, it probably won’t happen. May won’t give government time for Corbyn’s “stunt”; Labour will have to find time for it in January, by which time Corbyn will probably have thought better of it; other parties want to amend it into a full-blown FTPA motion potentially leading to an election; that probably won’t pass; and if Corbyn’s motion does eventually stagger through, it may well be deemed by Parliament’s procedural bods insufficiently precise in its wording to pass muster as a true confidence motion – not least because its subject matter, the meaningful vote, will be introduced to the Commons on 7 January anyway. And even if it was passed and deemed to have due force, this dithering parliament would probably never agree on who has its confidence as Prime Minister – so we’d be back with Theresa May after all.
But who knows? Maybe, just maybe …
Note: There is an issue about whether the Commons Speaker would call an amendment put by another party to a confidence motion from the official Opposition leader. It happened once (one might think illogically) when the Government sought to amend an Opposition confidence motion; but not on another occasion when a smaller opposition party (one might have though quite reasonably) sought such an amendment. So if Corbyn does get round to bringing his pointless “no confidence in the PM” motion and there is a move to harden it up, it may be down to John Bercow whether May stands or falls.
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee report is here (pdf).
• See this parliamentary backgrounder on confidence motions.
• Here is the Article 50 EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Act. It gave Mrs May the power to issue notice of Britain’s withdrawal to the EU (which she did). It can be withdrawn or paused, but only if Parliament passes new legislation – and only a Prime Minister (or her Secretary of State under her orders) can put that legislation before Parliament. That is why many soft Brexiters et al may decide they really need to get rid of her in good time to pause Brexit.