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The Brexit Breaking Point

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour can force a new election — if the Blairites don’t screw it up.

British Prime Minister Theresa May holds a press conference at the European Council during the two day EU summit on December 14, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. Dan Kitwood / Getty

Even the most committed centrist journalists in Britain have taken to quoting Lenin this week: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Usually busy conflating the mild social democracy of Jeremy Corbyn with full communism, their attention this week has been captured by the fever-pitch psychodrama of the Conservative Party, as the government publicly implodes and manages to paralyze itself at every turn.

The “meaningful vote” that turned out not to be meaningful, nor a vote, when it was withdrawn from the timetable at the last minute kicked off the week of chaos. As if to underline that the British Parliament is an embarrassing anachronism deliberately removed from the lives of most citizens, parliamentary proceedings were halted when Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Mole removed the mace — a ceremonial gold-plated stick symbolizing the monarch — from a table in the center of the House of Commons.

It’s a rarely seen gesture intended to scandalize the house, usually when members feel the debate underway is undemocratic or causes heightened tensions and emotions. Having to explain the move to those unfamiliar with obscure parliamentary tradition, and those watching abroad, only bolsters the yawning sense of embarrassment at the utter state of British politics in the past few years.

May left for a tour of Europe to supposedly help sell her EU withdrawal deal, despite the fact that the bloc already told her nothing could be changed and that her MPs made it clear she’d be heavily defeated if she attempted to force it through a parliamentary vote. Her MPs responded by relying again on an obscure procedure: submitting forty-eight letters of no confidence to the so-called 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, which forces a vote of confidence in the prime minister. The vote was hurriedly scheduled for the evening, with ballots printed and boxes laid out. All day long, journalists rang around MPs attempting to work out how many MPs would back May, and how many would throw her under the bus.

The result, announced in one of the endless wood-paneled rooms in parliament, drew cheers when the chair of the committee, Graham Brady, announced she had survived the vote. But a hush fell over the usually rowdy Conservatives as the results were read out — 200 had voted for the prime minister, 117 against. The number declaring no confidence was far higher than anticipated: the European Research Group, the hardline Brexiteer grouping of MPs, had been briefing that eighty-four rebels were expected; in the end, a further thirty-three MPs secretly voted to oust the prime minister, a total of 37 percent of Conservative MPs. For comparison, Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990 after 43 percent voted against her.

In meetings before the vote, May had promised not to stand again at the 2022 general election, but refused to be drawn on when she did plan to stand down, and how long she anticipated staying in place. Technically she has survived, but after canceling a vote, having to cut short a European charm offensive, and suffering a huge embarrassment in a confidence vote called suddenly in frustration at her leadership, she has never been weaker. May’s problems remain — the lack of support in the Commons makes it almost impossible to force through any legislation around Brexit, given how contentious it remains, and she is increasingly alone in a party where most people are simply waiting for her to stand down, and eyeing up potential leadership candidates once she does.

For now, May stays in place. The worry, however, is that critical Labour voices, who have endlessly attacked Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s position on Brexit, may foolishly help shepherd May’s withdrawal deal through parliament, claiming the options are either May’s deal or a “no deal” Brexit. This scaremongering deliberately mirrors May’s rhetoric. Most of her own MPs haven’t bought it — the Democratic Unionist Party certainly haven’t — but rebellious, centrist Labour MPs who cherish attacking the Corbyn project above all else could be won over by May’s maneuvering.

This would be a huge mistake: it was Labour’s firm stand, its refusal to back May, and its taming of rebels that forced May into this weakened situation. Further pressure is likely to convince May and the Conservative Party that if they cannot get laws through parliament, they have no choice but to move to a general election. And even May admitted today, addressing the assembled media, that that would be a gift to Corbyn and his deputy John McDonnell.