British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses parliament ahead of a no-confidence vote in London, Britain, January 16 2019. Picture: UK PARLIAMENT/JESSICA TAYLOR/REUTERS
British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses parliament ahead of a no-confidence vote in London, Britain, January 16 2019. Picture: UK PARLIAMENT/JESSICA TAYLOR/REUTERS

London — British leader leader Theresa May narrowly survived an attempt to oust her government on Wednesday after a crushing defeat for her Brexit plan.

The prime minister fought off the threat of an immediate national election and won the right to continue running the country when the House of Commons voted 325 to 306 against a motion of “no confidence” in her administration.

On finding out she won, May invited other party leaders to meet as soon as Wednesday night to talk about the way forward. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the socialist main opposition Labour party, said May must rule out a no-deal Brexit as a pre-condition for those discussions.

The slim margin of May’s victory was not a surprise as she has no overall majority in the Commons and relies on support from the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to prop up her government.

While the result brings short-term respite for May, the UK remains locked in a political crisis over its divorce from the European Union, with no deal in sight and just 10 weeks until the country is due to exit the bloc.

In a parliamentary vote on Tuesday, May’s blueprint for exiting the EU was resoundingly rejected by 230 votes — the worst parliamentary defeat for a government in modern British history. While pro-Brexit hardliners backed her in the confidence vote, they will be quick to denounce any attempts she makes to find a compromise that maintains close ties to the bloc. The support of her Northern Irish allies is also conditional on a radical overhaul of her deal.

If Parliament fails to approve a Brexit deal, the UK will fall out of the EU on March 29 without any new agreement in place. British authorities warn that this could trigger a recession, with the pound falling as much as 25% and house prices taking as much as a 30% hit.

Brexit delay

British and EU officials are increasingly convinced the UK will need to delay Brexit day, though May has so far refused publicly to consider that option.

“We are living through a historic moment in our nation’s history,” May said as she asked the Commons to back her government on Wednesday. “Following a referendum that divided our nation in half, we dearly need to bring our country back together,” May said. “We must find the answer among ourselves in this House, and, with the confidence of the House, this Government will lead that process.”

Corbyn proposed the no-confidence vote after May’s Brexit deal suffered the biggest parliamentary defeat for at least 100 years. He said she was now running a “zombie government”.

Corbyn said the country needed a fresh election to install a Labour government that would bring “fresh ideas” for tackling low pay rates for workers, a crumbling healthcare service, and state-funded education. “This government cannot govern and cannot command the support of Parliament on the most important issue facing our country,” Corbyn told the Commons. “A general election would give new impetus to negotiations, with a new prime minister.”

Stop Corbyn

Despite deep divisions in May’s Conservative party over Brexit, her colleagues — and their DUP partners — rallied to her defence, voting to keep the government in power. While they can’t agree on the best way to take the UK out of the EU, Conservative and DUP politicians are united in their determination to stop Corbyn forming a government.

The prime minister’s focus now turns to trying to find a way through the Brexit quagmire. After the deal she had spent almost two years negotiating with the EU was resoundingly rejected, May will now open talks with rival parties in the hope of finding a blueprint that Parliament can agree to support.

Time is running short. May must return to Parliament to set out her Plan B by Monday. She’s aiming to start talks with senior politicians from opposition partioes Thursday. According to a person familiar with the matter, the premier is also urgently lining up calls with EU leaders to discuss the next steps.

It’s unclear how much help the EU can be. The bloc is willing to extend the Article 50 negotiating period beyond the summer to find a deal if necessary, according to diplomats. But on Wednesday, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said there’s no way to remove the need for the most contentious part of the agreement — the so called backstop plan for the Irish border.