May can’t use Corbyn bogeyman to ram through her Brexit

by Hugo Dixon | 13.03.2018

In the old days, prime ministers could use no confidence votes to get MPs to back their policies. Since the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, that’s no longer possible.

This change in the law has big implications for Theresa May’s ability to ram her Brexit policy through Parliament. It means, for example, she can’t use the bogeyman of Jeremy Corbyn to whip her MPs into line over pulling us out of a customs union with the EU. And she couldn’t deploy the same scare tactic to stop Parliament giving the people a vote on whatever Brexit deal she manages to cut with the EU.

Previously, prime ministers could turn specific votes on policy in the House of Commons into votes of confidence. If they lost those votes, they had to resign. Normally, that meant there would be a general election. Such tactics were used to ensure party discipline. Backbench MPs would hold their noses and vote for things they didn’t really like because they hated even more the prospect of a general election that could let the opposition take over.

But the Fixed Term Parliaments Act changed the law. Prime ministers can no longer attach no confidence motions to specific votes on policy. Instead, these motions are standalone votes with the fixed formula: “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.” As a result, they have ceased to be a tool that prime ministers can use to drive through any policy, including Brexit.

Consider the amendment that Anna Soubry, the Tory MP, has attached to the trade bill calling for us to stay in a customs union with the EU (see NC5). The prime minister couldn’t turn this into a vote of confidence. The most that she could do is “threaten” to call a vote of confidence in the event that Parliament voted through the amendment.

But what would that achieve? There would be nothing to stop Soubry and other Tory “mutineers” rebelling against the government on a customs union and the very next moment backing May in a confidence vote. Exactly the same could happen if Parliament decided that the people should have a vote on the Brexit deal.

So when hardline Tories say a vote against May’s Brexit policy would let Corbyn into Downing Street, don’t listen. These are just scare stories to frighten kids at bedtime.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe