May confidence vote: Update

Chris Scicluna

The BBC has reported that more than half of Conservative MPs have pledged to support Theresa May in this evening’s confidence vote. So, assuming that not too many of them are lying (perhaps a brave assumption when it comes this cohort of Tory MPs), May looks set to win by a relatively comfortable margin and remain as Prime Minister for the time being. The result, however, is still hardly likely to represent a ringing endorsement for the PM, with her victory more than anything reflecting the lack of a credible unifying candidate to replace her and the late and delicate stage in the Brexit process.

Indeed, even though the result will mean that she cannot be challenged from within her own party for another twelve months, the total number of votes against her this evening might still signal a notable lack of authority in Parliament. Her victory will also not materially alter the balance of opinion on Brexit within the House of Commons. However, most notably perhaps, it will highlight that there is no majority for a no-deal Brexit, given that the bulk of those Tory MPs who will vote against May are likely to come from the Hard-Brexit wing of the party (the ‘extremists’ as Chancellor Hammond put it this morning).

Despite her victory this evening, May’s ongoing talks with the EU are still unlikely to result in significant revision of the draft Withdrawal Agreement (WA), with the clarification or revision of the Political Declaration (PD) likely to be cosmetic rather than substantive. And so, the PM will remain highly vulnerable to defeat if and when her Brexit deal is finally re-submitted for a ‘meaningful vote’ in Parliament, supposedly (but by no means definitively) before 21 January.

A defeat in that meaningful vote would likely be followed by a Parliamentary vote of no-confidence, tabled by the Labour party. While certain disgruntled Tory rebels might be tempted to vote against the Government in such a vote, on balance we would expect May’s administration to scrape through. However, that would then likely be followed by votes on further opposition (or cross-party) motions proposing alternative ways forward on Brexit – perhaps including a second referendum, or a rewriting of the PD to include a commitment to the UK remaining a member of both the Single Market and a Customs Union (the so-called Norway-style model), which may allow for some toning down of the language around the backstop in the WA (but not substantively). 

Overall, therefore, despite today’s political soap opera, the likelihood of various scenarios for Brexit has probably not materially shifted. We still attach a probability of less than 50% to any one particular outcome, with the probability of a second referendum (40%) or orderly Brexit (45%) significantly greater than that of a disorderly ‘no deal’ Brexit (5%) or new general election (10%).

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