With the defeat of Wednesday’s vote of no confidence in Theresa May’s Conservative government, Britain would appear to have reached a position of perfect immobility: it cannot move forward out of the Brexit bog, and it cannot move back. All of the options before it are either impossible or inconceivable; either way, they are not going to happen.
The past few weeks have indeed been a series of things that did not happen. First, May was not defeated in last month’s caucus vote on her leadership, though as none of her critics among the party’s boisterous contingent of Brexiteers had the first clue how to proceed it’s not clear much would have changed if she had been.
Tuesday, the deal her government had negotiated with the European Union on the terms of withdrawal — or non-withdrawal, as the case may be — failed to pass in the House of Commons. Well, “failed to pass” rather understates things: “was defeated by the largest margin in British history” would be closer to the mark.
Ordinarily, such a catastrophic rebuke on so fundamental a matter of government policy would be enough to bring down a government on its own. But since the passage of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2011, an explicit vote of confidence is required.
Had Wednesday’s confidence vote passed, there would have followed under the same law first an attempt to form another government with the confidence of the House, or failing that fresh elections. But it is not clear what either could have accomplished. Since none of the various Brexit options, from a second referendum through the various shades of free trade agreements with Europe (these are named for the signatory country: Norway, Canada, “Canada plus,” and so on) all the way to a “hard Brexit” without special trade ties of any kind, would appear to command majority support among MPs, it is hard to see how a new government could have succeeded any better than the last.