Will the No-Confidence Vote Prove to Be Confidence Building?

Benjamin Martill argues the no-confidence vote brought by Tory backbenchers may help Theresa May overcome some of her
domestic opposition, although the barriers to the withdrawal agreement passing Parliament will remain high: the EU will not reopen negotiations and the parliamentary arithmetic is still unlikely to add up.

Theresa May had looked all but certain to lose the parliamentary vote on the withdrawal agreement due to take place on Tuesday 11th December. The vote was postponed once May acknowledged the likelihood of its defeat. She now faces a vote of no confidence as the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs announced receipt of the 48 letters needed to trigger a vote.

The Challenge from the Right

Most of the letters have come from right-wing Brexiteers who see May’s deal as a sell-out of Brexit. While they are willing to risk a no deal scenario, their preferred outcome is for a true Brexit supporter to return to the negotiating table for the UK side and secure a new deal that removes the hated Northern Irish ‘backstop’, most likely by threatening non-payment of the £39bn divorce bill.

As the letters are anonymous, we still don’t know exactly who submitted them. A few Remain-supporting MPs who oppose May’s deal and her harsh rhetoric—such as Anna Soubry—may well have submitted letters in addition, hoping for a second referendum. But this group is in the minority. It is not unlikely that a number of other Conservative MPs have sent letters in response to the sheer incompetence of May’s efforts and the pitiful state of the government, although it is not clear what they expect the alternative to look like. At any rate, May’s opposition overwhelmingly comes from the Tory right.

May will almost certainly win the confidence vote. For one thing, she has a majority of support within the Conservative party, among whose MPs the vote will be exclusively held. Obtaining the 48 signatures has been difficult enough for backbenchers, who had notably failed in an earlier attempt following the announcement that after the withdrawal agreement had been agreed. Moreover, there is no clear alternative to what May is proposing. Nobody else in the party has any vision for the kind of Brexit they would hope to achieve, and nothing has been proposed but further bluff and bluster at the negotiating table, which could cause further damage. Bereft of alternatives, Tory MPs are likely to offer reluctant support to their beleaguered prime minister.

It is not really clear, then, what the vote will achieve for its backers. Tory right MPs are unlikely to get their preferred candidate past the leadership process even if they are successful. It is the Tory MPs themselves who whittle candidates down, before party members decide which of the two remaining candidates will become the new leader. In the past MPs have shown they prefer unity candidates to partisan ones (consider the choice of May in the first place), so they would be unlikely to support the more populist politicians in the party ranks, such as the former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, beloved of the rank-and-file.

Unresolved Challenges

Any would-be successor to May would face no shortage of challenges. He or she would have to deal with the EU’s refusal to reopen negotiations and the risk of a no deal Brexit—which would be far more damaging to the UK than to the EU—not to mention the political risk of being associated with the failure of the agreement or crashing out of the EU. Perhaps the most important factor to consider, then, is how May’s likely victory in the confidence vote will affect her standing vis-à-vis her domestic detractors (and they are almost all detractors) and the EU27.

At home, if she wins, she will have successfully stared down the hard Brexiteers in her party, exposing their lack of support in the party as a whole. They will not support the withdrawal agreement, of course, but they may take fewer other MPs with them in their opposition to May. She will also have renewed authority, of sorts, for her own deal, or at least for her own efforts to deliver on Brexit.

The EU—tired of yet another Brexit-related fiasco—will not likely renege on their repeated insistence that the negotiations will not be reopened. The EU27 may interpret the no-confidence vote in itself as further proof the agreement will not pass the British Parliament, but this is unlikely to convince them to return to the negotiating table. This is because they are prepared to withstand a no deal scenario, and because further compromise would be seen as a challenge to fundamental EU rules and member state interests alike.

The confidence vote is yet another strange occurrence in a bizarre political environment, where nothing seems certain anymore, where left and right are hard to discern, and where established political and constitutional norms have been flung out of the window. It is difficult to understand why May’s detractors feel it will be to their advantage. Like so many manoeuvres in Britain’s recent political history, this one looks likely to backfire.


Benjamin Martill is a Dahrendorf Forum Post-Doctoral Fellow based at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Photo by Stortinget via creative commons.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.