Brexit debate goes into extra-time

Jeremy Corbyn © Rex Features
Corbyn: toying with confidence votes

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has complicated the debate further. Emily Hohler reports.

Jeremy Corbyn tabled a no-confidence vote in Theresa May’s performance as prime minister on Monday in protest at her decision to postpone the so-called “meaningful vote” on her Brexit deal until the week commencing 14 January, says Lizzy Buchan in The Independent. May called his bluff by rejecting his demand and challenging him to call a vote of no confidence in her government as a whole instead, say Oliver Wright and Francis Elliott in The Times. That could trigger a general election. If Labour lost it, however, Corbyn would face huge pressure from his own Remain-supporting backbenchers to back a second referendum.

Alternative scenarios

That is the last thing Corbyn wants, says George Parker in the Financial Times. A “long-time Eurosceptic”, Corbyn knows that a second referendum would “split his party” and anger Labour voters. However, given the growing momentum for one, and the belief that May’s Brexit deal is “dead in the water”, there is “growing clamour” within the cabinet for May to test alternative Brexit scenarios – no deal, a Norway-plus option and a second referendum – in an “indicative vote” in the House of Commons, to see if a plan B could “command a majority”.

There is “so far little evidence” that any other option would fly. A no-deal exit might gain the backing of up to 100 Tory Eurosceptics, but there is little support amongst other MPs. The Norway-plus option was rejected by 327 votes to 126 in a Commons vote last June. As for a second vote, if support for this is not as strong as the campaign for it suggests, it might push its supporters towards May’s plan “to avert a no deal”, says Robert Shrimsley in the same paper. Conversely, if a referendum is popular, we will be “down to arguing over the question” on the ballot paper.

May’s strategy

May’s current plan – insofar as she has one – appears to be to “delay the moment of reckoning until we are hard against” the 29 March deadline, says Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. It does, agrees Rachel Sylvester in The Times. It is “abundantly clear” that May won’t win the concessions needed to get her deal through parliament, and by postponing the vote, MPs have less time to “find a path between her deal and no deal”.

The fuss about no deal is overdone, says Charles Moore in The Daily Telegraph. A default WTO Brexit has “great permanent advantages to set against temporary problems”, including no restriction on trade agreements, no “imprisonment in single-market regulations” and no “compulsion to pay the EU £39bn just to leave”. Crucially, the WTO route would also provide certainty. Ministers should be preparing for this.

A no-deal outcome can’t happen without Theresa May, says William Hague in The Daily Telegraph. “The legislation essential to making sense of a no-deal Brexit such as providing relevant powers for customs and immigration officials” needs her approval. Now that she has been reaffirmed as party leader she has “increased leverage”. She may not be able to get her deal through, but she can prevent another plan being adopted or make it the “front-running possibility” by backing it.

After all, she is safe as leader for a year now, while a successful vote of no confidence in her government would require Tory or DUP MPs to vote against her. If “they produced a Corbyn ministry by doing so”, they would be reviled. So I hope that May returns to Westminster after Christmas with some perspective, says William Hague, ready to take advantage of the powers her opponents have “unwittingly handed to her”.