Defiant Theresa May dares Labour to try topple government

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Theresa May has dared Labour to try and topple her government after she announced the Commons would not vote on her proposed Brexit deal until the middle of January, just a week before a crucial legal deadline.

Jeremy Corbyn said it was “unacceptable that we should be waiting almost a month before we have a meaningful vote on the crucial issue facing the future of this country” and lodged a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: PA Wire

Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: PA Wire

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However, he was criticised by Nicola Sturgeon and fellow opposition leaders for stopping short of a pushing for a confidence vote in the government that could trigger a general election.

Downing Street effectively dared Labour to mount a full attempt to topple the government, after refusing to give Mr Corbyn’s motion parliamentary time to be debated.

Labour’s motion was not put forward under legislation that determines when the UK holds general elections, and would not have collapsed the government. “There is a method under the Fixed Term Parliament Act if MPs want to express no confidence in the government,” a Number 10 source said.

Amid continuing turmoil at Westminster, the First Minister is expected in London tomorrow and is likely to meet Mrs May to urge her to avoid a no-deal Brexit. It will be Ms Sturgeon’s third visit for Brexit talks in a month.

There was confusion as Labour sources briefed in the run-up to the Prime Minister’s statement that a confidence motion would be brought forward, only for that to change when Mrs May announced a date for the meaningful vote. At the end of her statement, however, Mr Corbyn changed his mind, catching his own deputy leader off guard.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell claimed Labour had won a “victory in forcing the Prime Minister to set a date for the meaningful vote”, but clarified: “Jeremy has taken the sense of the House of Commons which is clearly demanding a vote this week. Fair enough, we’re now going for it.”

After the motion was lodged, Ms Sturgeon tweeted: “Labour tabling a motion just in the PM rather than in the entire government begs the question, which Tory do they want to see as PM?”

Earlier, she had accused Labour of “acceding” to the government’s timetable and “allowing them to waste another month”. “When there are only three months left to avert disaster, that’s really not excellent tactics,” she added.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable accused Mr Corbyn of “bottling” a real confidence vote.

Senior pro-Brexit rebels who tried to oust the Prime Minister last week said they would back her against Labour’s attempt to embarrass her.

Tory MP Steve Baker said: “Eurosceptic Conservatives are clear that we accept the democratic decision of our party to have confidence in Theresa May as PM.” A European Research Group (ERG) source added that its members would “of course be voting with the government on this meaningless Labour motion”, and the DUP signalled they would also back the Prime Minister.

Updating the Commons on a turbulent summit in Brussels last week, Mrs May told MPs that “some of the resulting exchanges at this Council were robust”.

She insisted she “faithfully and firmly reflected the concerns of this House over the Northern Ireland backstop” and claimed the EU had committed that the controversial provision in the Brexit deal could be avoided and would only be temporary.

“I can confirm today that we intend to return to the meaningful vote debate in the week commencing 7 January and hold the vote the following week,” Mrs May told MPs.

The Labour leader said the vote should have been held before Christmas, accusing Mrs May of “dither and delay”.

He told her: “A responsible prime minister would, for the good of this country, put this deal before the House this week so we could move on from this government’s disastrous negotiation”.

The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford said it was “time to call time on this government” and taunted Mrs May: “Where is the leadership? We thought the Prime Minister had reached rock bottom, but she’s still digging.”

The SNP secured an emergency debate on the decision to put off last week’s vote on the Brexit deal, which could take place today.

Meanwhile, Cabinet ministers continued to openly speculate about how to proceed if Mrs May’s deal is rejected, despite Downing Street denials that any plan B is being considered. Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd said it was important to find out the “will of parliament”, while Business Secretary Greg Clark also appeared to back an indicative vote to find out what – if anything – MPs could support.

In a bid to keep the Prime Minister’s deal alive, Downing Street said talks in Brussels were continuing “at all levels”.

But the European Commission’s chief spokesman said no further meetings are expected. He said in Brussels: “The deal that is on the table is the best and the only deal possible.”