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Explainer: How will today's no confidence motion play out - and what happens next?

The vote on Jeremy Corbyn’s motion is at 7pm tonight. May is expected to survive.

CONFIDENCE MOTIONS IN the government roll along every few years in Ireland – but across the water they’re a little rarer. 

The last time a UK Prime Minister faced one was back in the 1990s. John Major was triumphant that time, and Theresa May’s expected to battle through this evening too – although, as one Westminster political commentator noted this morning, it would only take a handful of Tory MPs to decide to go for an early dinner to put the result at risk. 

Prime Minister's Questions In the wake of last night's defeat May was back on her feet this afternoon for Prime Minister's Questions. Source: House of Commons/PA Wire/PA Images

So how will it play out?

Today’s vote was called by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and had been widely expected following the government’s thumping defeat on Brexit last night. 

The main vote happens at 7pm and the rest of the day’s proceedings at the House of Commons are being given over to the debate on the motion. 

Brexiteer MPs in the Conservative Party – the group who used to be known, a little optimistically as ‘Eurosceptics’ – may not be too keen on Theresa May but it almost goes without saying they’re even less keen on Jeremy Corbyn and Labour so the Prime Minister should be able to rely on their support tonight. 

Similarly the DUP were forceful in their opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement struck between May’s government and the EU – but the unionist party’s 10 MPs have also signalled they will support her tonight. 

As DUP leader Arlene Foster put it last night: 

We will work with the Government constructively to achieve a better deal. That is our focus. Whilst some may wish to use this defeat to boost their political ambitions, we will give the Government the space to set out a plan to secure a better deal.

Currently the Conservatives have 316 votes in the chamber, with 320 needed for a majority – meaning the support of the DUP is needed to nudge them over the line. 

But what if May lost? 

Under the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, losing a confidence motion begins a two-week process that could end in fresh elections.

If the vote is lost, the government has 14 days to regain the confidence of the House of Commons – majority support – confirmed by the passing of a motion to that effect.

If it cannot regain that confidence, then theoretically, Corbyn himself could seek to build a coalition with other opposition parties like the SNP and the Liberal Democrats to take office.

In the event that no alternative government can be formed from the current composition of the house, parliament is automatically dissolved and elections called.

What’s Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy? 

The Labour leader has stepped up his calls for a general election in recent weeks, saying it’s necessary to “break the deadlock” over Brexit. 

In interviews and contributions to the House of Commons, he’s been insisting a new government would have a fresh mandate to negotiate a better deal with the EU. 

But because his no confidence bid is, as things stand, looking unlikely to succeed campaigners looking for a second referendum are likely to step up pressure on the Labour leadership.  

Delegates at the Labour conference voted last September to support “all options remaining on the table” on Brexit, including campaigning for a second vote if Theresa May’s government was unable to get a final deal through parliament.

Shadow finance minister John McDonnell, a Corbyn ally, and shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer had both publicly pressured Corbyn on whether or not to rule out another referendum on Britain’s EU membership.

Corbyn had said he would respect the decision of members at the conference.  

Brexit Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg's ERG group are expected to back May in this evening's vote. Source: Dominic Lipinski

How does May plan to proceed? 

Reading a prepared statement in the wake of last night’s hammering, May told MPs they had registered what they were opposed to, but that they now needed to set out what they were for. 

She said she would begin cross-party talks on what should happen next, although she’s already facing criticism this morning for not including Corbyn in that effort. 

Without a withdrawal agreement, Britain leaves the European Union in under 1,750 hours, at midnight on 29 March.

There’s now consensus in Brussels that the deadline will now be extended, but not beyond the end of June, when a new European parliament will take its seats. 

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As for how the EU will respond to further entreaties from the embattled British leader – Peter Kellner, visiting scholar at Carnegie Brussels and former head of polling firm YouGov, told AFP that EU negotiators should adopt “tough love tactics”.

“The issue next week or the one after will be what happens when it becomes clear that Theresa May cannot get anything like what she wants through parliament.

“One of two things will happen: Either she will change her position radically or, if she doesn’t, parliament will take control and parliament will impose a radical change.

The danger of the EU trying to see if there’s a way of trying to get Theresa May out of her hole is that we have another three or four months of discussions that don’t get anywhere.
May is required to present some form of plan B to the Commons by Monday.

France Brexit Europe Last night's result left the EU "fearing more than ever that there is a risk" of a cliff-edge departure, chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said today in Strasbourg. Source: Jean-Francois Badias

How long has it been since a UK government lost a confidence vote? 

Since 1900 there have been only three occasions when a government has lost a vote of confidence – twice in 1924 and once in 1979.

In the last such vote, the Labour government of Jim Callaghan lost the opposition motion by just one vote. 

Margaret Thatcher swept to power in the ensuing general election and the Conservatives remained in office for 18 years.

Callaghan immediately called an election that time. This time around, due to the Fixed Term Parliament Act, May wouldn’t have the power to do that by herself – she’d need the support of two-thirds of MPs.

The last time a confidence motion was formally tabled in the Commons was in 1993. Then, too, it was due to a row over Europe. 

John Major’s government tabled the motion of confidence following its defeat in a vote on the Maastricht Treaty which turned the European Economic Community into the European Community.

He won the motion by 339 to 299, shoring up his position.

- With reporting from AFP 

About the author:

Daragh Brophy

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