May hangs on after no-confidence motion fails

Prime Minister Theresa May
Prime Minister Theresa May
Image: Supplied

British Prime Minister Theresa May narrowly survived a noconfidence vote sparked by the crushing defeat of her Brexit deal just weeks before the UK leaves the European Union.

She emerged victorious in parliament’s first no-confidence vote in a British government in 26 years on Wednesday night by a 325-306 margin, a majority of just 19.

But it may have only been a pyrrhic victory for the hobbled but determined premier as she tries to steer the world’s fifthbiggest economy through its biggest crisis in a generation.

Main opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had called the vote, but her Conservative MPs rallied behind her, heading off the threat of a general election.

“This house has put its confidence in this government,” May told MPs immediately after the vote in parliament’s lower House of Commons.

“I stand ready to work with any member of this house to deliver on Brexit and ensure that this house retains the confidence of the British people.”

A stunning 24-hour span saw May on Tuesday dealt the heaviest drubbing by parliament in modern British political history – 432 votes to 202 – over the divorce terms she reached with Brussels, followed by the no-confidence vote on Wednesday.

The Labour Party could try to oust her government again in the hope of triggering snap elections before Britain’s scheduled March 29 Brexit date.

And May herself is working on the tightest-possible deadline as Britain prepares to leave the bloc that for half a century defined its economic and political relations with the rest of the world.

She has invited opposition leaders to meet with her for Brexit talks – starting immediately after the vote.

“The government approaches these meetings in a constructive spirit and I urge others to do the same,” she said.

“But we must find solutions that are negotiable and command sufficient support in this house.”

She has promised to return to parliament on Monday with an alternative Brexit strategy devised through cross-party talks with the opposition.

However, Corbyn said May had to rule out the possibility of a no-deal Brexit before holding cross-party talks.

There is now an assumption among many European diplomats that Brexit will have to be delayed to avoid a no-deal breakup.

May notably refused to rule out the idea when quizzed about it in parliament earlier in the day.

She survived on Wednesday thanks to the support of members of her Conservative Party and ruling coalition Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Union Party. But more than a third of the Conservatives and all 10 DUP members of parliament voted against her Brexit arrangements on Tuesday – each for their own reason.

May will thus tread carefully as she tries to win over opposition lawmakers – many of whom want to remain in the EU – while also attempting to appease more hardened Brexitbacking coalition partners.

During a grilling in parliament earlier on Wednesday, May repeated two key principles – limiting migration and pursuing an independent trade policy – which would rule out Labour hopes of membership of an EU customs union or its single market. But she also hinted at the possibility of delaying Brexit.

May said the EU would allow this “if it was clear that there was a plan towards moving towards an agreed deal”.

All 27 EU leaders would have to sign off a Brexit date postponement in case May requests one – something she has until now refused to do.

EU officials have said extending the negotiating period could be possible until the newly elected European Parliament meets in June.

French President Emmanuel Macron suggested after May’s fiasco on Tuesday that the EU might be willing to tweak a few minor points – but only if they did not alter the bloc’s existing position on trade and borders.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel added: “We still have time to negotiate, but we’re now waiting on what the prime minister proposes.”

And Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said “if the UK were to evolve from its red lines on the customs union and on the single market, that the EU could evolve also”.

Corbyn opened Wednesday’s debate by telling May she was leading a “zombie government” whose Brexit agreement was officially dead.

May must do the right thing and resign, he said.

But there is still no consensus on how to proceed and May called an election “the worst thing we could do”.

“It would deepen division when we need unity, it would bring chaos when we need certainty and it would bring delay when we need to move forward,” she argued.


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