Westminster Palace shrouded by fog.

What appear as defeats in the ongoing tensions over Brexit are not all that they seem

The government of Theresa May failed to pass the Brexit deal through parliament. 230 votes were cast against the deal on Tuesday 15 January. This was the largest defeat of any vote in the house of commons, beating the previous record from 1924. It was expected. This, however, may not be quite the defeat that it appears to be for some in the government, or for certain of the ruling class elites who wield considerable influence within politics and society.

There’s a deadlock. The proposed agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union was rejected by parliament. The prime minister’s party has already given its support to her as leader and she cannot be ousted by the Conservative party until nearly a year from now. The only way that she can cease to be party leader is for her to resign the position. And as leader of the largest party within the governing coalition, May remains as prime minister.

Formally, there’s a chance for parliament’s house of commons to successfully cast a vote of non confidence. The Labour party and other opposition parties don’t have enough seats to enforce this. They would need the support of rebels within the Conservative party of members of northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party (DUP) for the sitting government to be recalled.

Breakdown of parliamentary seats:

Conservative 317
Labour 256
Scottish National Party 35
Liberal Democrat 11
Democratic Unionist Party 10
Independent 8
Sinn Féin 7
Plaid Cymru 4
Green Party 1
Speaker 1

There are a total of 650 seats in parliament, and the sitting government, composed of the Conservatives and the DUP together account for over half of them at 327. Three members of the governing coalition would need to defect to the opposition and all non-governing members would need to be united in order to oust the government.

Key individuals and factions of the Conservatives and the DUP have already indicated that they would support the prime minister to retain leadership, standing against any vote of no confidence. In this case, the United Kingdom is left with a rejected Brexit deal and with the existing government of May in charge of future action.

Here are the options and possibilities as I see them:

  1. Passage of a vote of no confidence
  2. Theresa May resigns under pressure
  3. Theresa May’s government continues to lead the Brexit process

1. The government ousted by a vote of confidence

As already explained, the first option, that of no confidence is highly unlikely to succeed. The Conservatives and DUP are unlikely to cede ground to Labour. Even if there are disagreements within the governing parties on how exactly to proceed with Brexit, they have thus far shown a commitment to Conservative leadership over the process no matter what.

If the vote of no confidence did somehow pass, then the Labour party would be responsible for the formation of the next government. They don’t have enough seats for this, so, they would have to agree with and form a coalition with other parliamentarians in order to together assemble a majority of seats. Here, they run into the same problem once more: they couldn’t hold a majority of seats without a split in the Conservatives or the DUP.

Therefore, failing to form government, an election would need to be called. This process would take longer than there is time until the deadline for the UK and the EU to reach agreement on Brexit. Without an extension, that could lead to a ‘hard’ Brexit.

Even if an extension was made to the Brexit process, there’s no way to know who would end up winning an election. The Scottish National party (SNP) favours staying in the European Union, while Labour is split on the specifics of the issue. The Labour leadership has maintained an ambiguous position overall and, even if they were in favour of some flavour of Brexit, they couldn’t easily come out against EU membership without alienating the SNP, which they currently need as allies and may also need in future. In the future, if there was an early election, and Labour was to end up holding the largest number of parliamentary seats, they could well require the SNP as coalition partners in order to hold a majority of seats in combination.

So, Labour is in a bind. If they come out in support of Brexit, they risk alienating the SNP. If they support remaining in the EU, they stand against a referendum and would be hard-pressed to show how staying in the EU furthers their leadership’s social and economic policies of forwarding class politics and class struggle. The EU, after all, is currently a deliberately neoliberal project and their leadership is not prone to support a significant reform of their rules and institutions when the UK is pressed for time and on the defensive.

Anyway, this is mostly academic, since a vote of no confidence is unlikely to make it through parliament. However, Labour’s leadership is still pressed into declaring a clear position on Brexit if they champion such a vote. Of course they can continue to maintain an ambiguous position but that undermines the party’s viability as a leader in a time when Brexit is on the agenda. Thus far, they’ve tried to shift focus from the question of EU membership to one of class politics. This works to an extent, but the questions of class struggle need to be extended to include a clear position on Brexit, which bears risks of alienating one or another group: some of the electorate, trade unions, or future parliamentary coalition partners.

The Conservatives can press the Labour leadership on this, tightening the noose and highlighting Labour’s ambiguity, therefore eroding trust in that party by representing them as wafflers who are unwilling to lead because they cannot commit to decisions on the country’s urgent situation.

In fact, that’s what May has been doing. Most recently, she excluded Labour from cross-party talks on Brexit. The prime minister demands that Corbyn, as leader of the opposition party, states his position on Brexit before being invited to discuss the future of Brexit.

2. The resignation of Theresa May

The prime minister has already been under a great deal of stress and strain. She’s shown herself to be resolute. So, it’s unlikely that she cracks under pressure at this point. She seems determined to carry through as leader and has thus far managed to keep contenders at bay.

Since it doesn’t look like she’s personally about to crumble from the strain of it all, her resignation would need to be forced by other means than psychological stress.

May has already dealt with the possibility of Conservative rebellion. She won an internal party vote regarding her leadership in December 2018. Under the electoral party’s rules, another such vote cannot be held until 12 months have passed. So, the rebellion would need to be informal. An informal rebellion risks back-firing on the individuals and could very seriously undermine the cohesion and political power of the Conservatives. Rebels would risk setting their own house on fire, greatly diminishing the power of the party in order to kick May out at this point.

All indications are that they would not take such a risk. They wish for their broad group to maintain institutional power even if there are opposing camps within them. In short, they think it better to maintain the party’s base of power and hash differences out internally rather than passing the scepter to a wholly external party.

Given the circumstance that the only viable alternative to a governing party is Labour, the Conservatives are best served by sticking together in this regard and working out differences internally. Anyway, even if they’re riven with fracture, so is the Labour party, split between its Corbynite (left) and Blairite (right) camps. For the Conservatives to pressure May to leave at this point would be similar to them admitting that they cannot or refuse to lead the country during this pivotal period.

The 15 January vote against May’s Brexit deal is just such a hashing out of differences. Let’s remember that the UK government doesn’t need the support of any other political party than those of the existing coalition in order to enforce any deal. So, the Conservative opposition voted against the deal as is, but will then most likely vote to keep the government that exists. They can then negotiate internally and carry any new demands to the EU for another round of talks and possible extension to the Brexit deadline.

The DUP is unlikely to break up the government since the formation of a new government will probably not include them; so they would be throwing away their hand by collapsing the government.

3. Theresa May’s government continues to lead

This is the most probable scenario. But lead to what conclusion?

Is there going to be a hard Brexit where all notable ties are cut with the EU? Will some version of the existing proposed agreement be upheld? Will The UK be an informal partial member with limited access and obligations in regards to the EU? Will the UK stay in the EU by default if the Conservatives retain government and the EU perpetually extends the deadline for the foreseeable future? After all, the European Court of Justice has ruled that the UK can stay in the EU if it so wishes.

Perhaps by dragging the whole thing out, and maintaining a perpetual deadlock, it will indeed come to pass: the UK stays because there’s no other viable option.

Indeed, this may be the intent of some factions within the governing coalition. Drag the thing out, keep the stalemate, keep up the tensions, and exhaust all other options. Certainly, this could be one of the options envisioned by the EU’s leadership.

Suffice to say that there has been no clear victor and no clear loser for any single political party within the UK. Factions within and across the parties are warring over the outcome, and not all of their intentions would necessarily be clearly communicated. When the situation is so thorny, duplicity and tactical maneuvers can be employed. Apparent defeats can hold the kernel of victory, and supposed success can open the door to frustrated ambitions. The path is not clear, nor are everyone’s motives in the open.

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