As far as I understand, Theresa May was elected to the leader of the Conservatives (and consequently Prime Minister of the UK) to make a Brexit deal (source):

She [May] said there was a "big job" ahead to unite the party and the country following the referendum, to "negotiate the best possible deal as we leave the EU" and to "make Britain work for everyone".

She added: "I am the only candidate capable of delivering these three things as prime minister[...]"

She worked for two years on a deal that the Parliament eventually rejected, so she failed her main(?) task. Yet, the next day the very same Parliament gave her confidence that she should continue governing (and achieve a Brexit deal). How do MPs explain that on Tuesday they reject her deal, but on Wednesday they trust her to continue to get an acceptable deal (which she failed to do in two years, according to the vote the previous day)?

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    "So she failed her main(?) task." You're right to put the question mark in. Her main task is being the Prime Minister, Brexit gets a lot of headlines but it's by no means her main responsibility.
    – JeffUK
    Jan 17, 2019 at 13:43
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    @JeffUK In the source I quoted she seemed to outline her job. I guess she did unite her party (at least for the no confidence vote), but I as far as I understand, she did not unite the country, the UK seems to be quite divided. "make Britain work for everyone" sounds really vague, I don't know how she stands with it. Her deal was rejected. So at most she achieved half of what she set out to do. Jan 17, 2019 at 13:49
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    My impression is that the PM sees this is a stumbling block, so her work is not yet complete. So, she carries on. Jan 17, 2019 at 13:56
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    Nobody wants the job. Including Corbyn. Nobody can deliver Brexit.
    – Richard
    Jan 18, 2019 at 0:11
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    @Bregalad Despite her claims, she done nothing but inflame the divisions. She painted herself into a corner with her arbitrary red-lines, ruling out softer options e.g. "Norway+" that might have been a reasonable compromise given the narrow result. She ignored and insulted the 48% calling them citizens of nowhere and staying silent when the right-wing press calls them sabateurs and traitors. She has refused to meet representatives of the 3 million EU27 citizens in UK and of UK ex-pats whose lives are turned upside-down. Sorry. No sympathy at all.
    – padd13ear
    Jan 18, 2019 at 11:40

6 Answers 6


That is because there is a likelihood that the opposition party will gain power should the government be defeated in the confidence vote.

According to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the government has 14 days to try to form a new government or an early election will have to be called. The new government formed will also be subjected to a confidence vote.

The Act specifies that early elections can be held only:

[ ... ]

if a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government is confirmed by the Commons within 14 days.

The Conservative Party is currently in power on a "confidence and supply" arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party.

It would be difficult for the Conservative Party to find another party to form a "confidence and supply" arrangement. After the 2017 general elections, the Liberal Democrats expressed skepticism on forming a government with the Conservative Party, the Scottish National Party is opposed to the Conservative Party while the Sinn Féin has an abstentionist policy. These are the three parties with enough seats to prop up the government.

After the damage inflicted on the Liberal Democrats by their coalition deal with the Conservatives in 2010-15, the centrist party ruled out any reprise. There was also no chance of a Conservative deal with the Scottish National Party (SNP), which won 35 seats but which is resolutely opposed to the Tories on both constitutional and economic questions. It appears that no one has even contemplated a grand coalition between Labour and the Conservatives, an arrangement that works in Germany but which is alien to the UK other than in wartime.

Source: The Conservation: Can a minority Conservative government survive? Let’s look at the maths

It's also worth noting that it is rare for a party's own MPs to vote against their government in a confidence motion.

Most governments are defeated after the "confidence and supply" party (in the current case, the DUP) votes against it. However, the DUP is opposed to a Corbyn government so they continue to prop up the incumbent Conservative Party government.

Not surprisingly, MPs voted entirely along party lines on the confidence motion:


If no new government could be formed, an early election must be held in which the Labour Party is currently in good shape to win.

As such, either way, the opposition Labour Party will likely gain power should the incumbent Conservative Party be defeated in the confidence vote.

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    Great answer. Besides the fear of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister, a factor that is rarely brought up is what might happen to a Conservative MP who votes against their own party (or abstains). It can be speculated that they would be expelled from the party, which besides any personal and professional turmoil that would cause, would make it hard for them to be re-elected at the next election, as they would have to stand as an independent, or possibly for another party. Jan 17, 2019 at 12:57
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    worth pointing out that if Corbyn had thought he'd win the motion he probably wouldn't have tabled it...
    – user19831
    Jan 17, 2019 at 13:11
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    @user2414208: if a majority of the voters in an MP's constituency want the current government to remain in power (or failing that, don't want a Labour government), then voting to achieve that - and giving voters this reason - is a sensible course of action. Obviously it keeps the MP in power too (insofar as individual MPs have much power), but this can be painted as being about the bigger picture. Jan 17, 2019 at 13:52
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    @gerrit Corbyn would be a fool to want to become PM right now. He would much prefer to be PM in April, and be able to blame absolutely anything on "the Tory Brexit"
    – Caleth
    Jan 17, 2019 at 14:22
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    @Caleth Unless you believe the Labour Party when they say they want to avoid the damage a no-deal Brexit would do to the country, which would be possible if Labour takes over (like they've said they wanted many, many times) and extends Article 50 (Juncker has said that if red lines are dropped, which they would if government changes, the Withdrawal Agreement can be changed). I find it entirely believable that this is indeed Labours preferred option, as laid out explicitly at Party Conference.
    – gerrit
    Jan 17, 2019 at 14:29

Because, I think, no one wants to be the Prime Minister place during Brexit. Just imagine the number of problems coming - with borders, economy, and the bank sector especially. For now, responsibility for all Brexit-coming problems will lie on the May's government. On the next elections, May's government will be associated with all Brexit stuff, not the new-elected.

MPs don't like May's Brexit deal. But they also don't want to take responsibility for the consequences, by substituting May's government themselves.

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    No one in politics ever wants to be the one to bell the cat. Jan 17, 2019 at 13:48
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    "no one want to be on Prime-Minister": that's not true; Corbyn has said repeatedly that he wants the job. Jan 17, 2019 at 13:55
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    @SteveMelnikoff yeah, he says that. What he really wants is to be PM after everything has gone haywire, so he can say 'not on my watch'. Which, to be fair, is fairly sensible.
    – user19831
    Jan 17, 2019 at 13:56
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    @gerrit Sorry, I'm sadly unable to quote JC's internal motivations, but his careful avoidance of calling for a NCM earlier and various ways he's dodged calling it suggest that he's in no hurry to force a GE right now. Which makes sense - if May brexits then all the negatives can be blamed on her.
    – user19831
    Jan 17, 2019 at 14:20
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    @Orangesandlemons There would have been no point in calling for a NCM earlier. In fact, there was no point in calling for one now (see result), and he might not have bothered if May hadn't said that SNP, LibDems, and Greens could table one instead. Jan 17, 2019 at 15:24

As far as I understand, Theresa May was elected to the leader of the Conservatives (and consequently Prime Minister of the UK) to make a Brexit deal

No, she was elected leader of the Conservatives (and consequently Prime Minister of the UK) to lead the Conservatives (and consequently the country). Making a Brexit deal is surely the most important part of those jobs at the moment so it is still somewhat surprising that she is still in them. However, your premise suggests a direct connection between the Brexit deal and her election, which simply does not exist.

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    Funny side note: those who expressed no confidence in her as Tory leader in December, expressed confidence in her as head of government in January. Jan 17, 2019 at 21:21
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    @Trilarion Well, they are different things. If the no confidence vote had carried in the full House, there was no guarantee that the Conservatives would remain in control, especially if no government could form in time and a general election was held (as Labour seems likely to come out ahead right now in one of those). The in-party vote had far less risk to the party itself beyond the public optics. Jan 18, 2019 at 9:28
  • @zibadawatimmy You're right. It's not the same. Confidence motions are about more than just confidence. But on the surface it looks like confidence can come and go easily these days. Jan 18, 2019 at 10:26
  • Well, that's politics for you. It's not really a straight question "do you have confidence in <X>?" in a vacuum; those answering the question also take the possible consequences into account and choose the answer that they think will have the best outcome, at the time of writing. Just as everybody does when voting for a thing or making a decision about a thing. This is really just the beginning of all the ways in which "dealing with people" is complicated. Jan 18, 2019 at 11:35
  • It's not really up to parliament to oust her, it's up to the Tory's themselves in a spill. That's obviously not happened yet but it could soon if the remainers or no-dealers get enough support in the party (unlikely). Except she's immune from a spill. So there's really no chance of her being replaced.
    – Stephen
    Mar 29, 2019 at 1:18

How do MPs explain that on Tuesday they reject her deal, but on Wednesday they trust her to continue to get an acceptable deal (which she failed to do in two years, according to the vote the previous day)?

Exactly this. They trust her to come up with a different deal (not all of them expect the same changes though, some may even hope for a no-deal Brexit). And why not? It's their decision. Many criticize only a single part (the backstop). There is still some time.

At some point this might become somewhat ridiculous. If no new idea with a majority in Parliament and consent of the EU emerges, they will either have to accept her deal or reject her and do something else like a General Election, another referendum or a no-deal Brexit.

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    It's already ridiculous, it took 2.5 years to get here. The meaningful vote was pushed back a month during which time absolutely nothing changed. The idea that May cancome up with something new at this point seems laughable. She has already ruled out every other option.
    – Jontia
    Jan 17, 2019 at 17:59
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    @Jontia Then maybe MPs will eventually see her wisdom and finally agree with her.. or do something else. There is still time to oust her if needed. Problem is that there is no majority in Parliament for anything currently. But there might be a majority for something soon. So far, MPs keep all their options open. Brexit could even still be canceled, at least theoretically. Jan 17, 2019 at 21:15

The UK's problem is that the majority in parliament doesn't want to leave with May's deals, doesn't want to leave without a deal, knows they have no chance to get a better deal (unless May sends Boris Johnson to negotiate, he will show them...), doesn't want to not leave, doesn't want to ask for an extension of Article 50, doesn't want another referendum, and for all these reasons is completely stuck.

On the other hand, the UK doesn't want to give Labour any chance to get new elections and take over power.

So whatever May would have suggested, it would have been rejected. And they all know that. And while all the Tories are happy to attack her, they know that they need her.


Theresa May had already survived a pre-Christmas rebellion in the Conservative Party, when an attempt was made to pass a vote of no confidence in her leadership, an attempt to trigger a leadership election. But the attempt failed. Under Party rules, no further attempt can be made for 12 months. Therefore she is immune from being replaced as Party Leader now.

Since the only issue on which her MPs are agreed is their desire to keep Corbyn out of Downing Street, her Party will not vote for an early Election. They voted for one 18 months ago, and lost it, putting them back into a minority government again, so are more cautious now. Expecting them to vote to give Corbyn another chance to take power away from them is like expecting a Turkey to vote for Christmas.

Her survival thus has nothing to do with Brexit. For 12 months, she is immune to being replaced as Leader of her party, so she can lose, lose and lose again in votes in the Commons; she knows that on a Confidence vote her MPs will not vote for an Election, because they prefer her to Corbyn.

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