The Trials of Theresa May – 17 January 2019

It is true to say that no British Prime Minister has ever suffered a greater defeat (or one anywhere near as great) as Mrs May experienced on Tuesday evening. It is also true that down the years, PMs suffering major defeats on key items of legislation have resigned personally, and/or triggered a general election. Not so Mrs May. However, she did make it clear that she expected a motion of no confidence in her government and we had one, yesterday.

Mrs May’s administration survived the vote with a majority of 19, with the division simply reflecting the number of MPs in her party plus its supporters in the DUP and a handful of independent MPs – the opposition opposed, but lacked the numbers to muster a majority. It was hardly a ringing endorsement of support for a popular PM who enjoyed the confidence of her party and the respect of a significant portion of the rest of the House, but a reflection of British political tribalism. However, survive she did.

It will be reported that Mrs May reached out to other parties and invited their leaders to meet with her individually last night, but no sooner had the words left her mouth than she was reiterating that no deal remained an option and would not be removed from the table. That was enough, reasonably, for Mr Corbyn to decline the invitation. Other leaders made similar calls and also repeated the suggestion that the prospect of a further “People’s Vote” should now be seriously discussed. Fresh from her historic defeat on Tuesday, the PM ruled this out too, insisting that she must honour the narrow mandate from the contentious 2016 referendum. The fact that polling has consistently shown that the majority has shifted in favour of the remain position for many months now, that all constituencies in the nation now favour another vote and that younger (newly enfranchised) voters are strongly pro-European didn’t move her.

Whilst other leaders have met with the PM and no doubt some “senior parliamentarians from all sides of the House” will do so, the fact remains that her deal is as dead as the dodo. The EU have made it clear that there will be no fresh negotiations unless the UK position shifts (by removing some of May’s red lines), so there is no chance that harmony will break out in Westminster and her deal will arise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the greatest political defeat in British history.

There are strong calls from many quarters (not least his own supporters within his party) in the Labour party, other political parties, trade unions, the pro-remain campaign groups and business groups for Corbyn to back a further referendum. Given the political impasse, these may prove irresistible.

In an interesting development last night, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, was recorded telling business leaders that he thought that parliament would take the no deal option off the table in a matter of days and that A50 could well be rescinded. The telephone conference was aimed at soothing fears of a catastrophic no deal exit from the EU (which would mean that no transitional period would happen). Mr Hammond campaigned for remain and has been an advocate of a very soft Brexit.

The next big event will be May’s presentation of “plan B” on Monday – it has been promised that the motion can be amended. Forex market reaction continues to be fairly muted to developments in Westminster, but the Euro has weakened marginally against Sterling. This is unsurprising since the votes which have taken place have gone as expected, even if the margin of Tuesday’s defeat was more substantial than many had predicted.

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