British PM May narrowly survives confidence vote, exposing fragility of alliance with Northern Ireland MPs
British Prime Minister Theresa May won narrowly parliamentary approval for her legislative program after being forced into a concession on abortion rights to stave off a potential defeat.
Her Brexit-dominated agenda for the next two years won the backing of the House of Commons on Thursday by 323 votes to 309. Earlier, the government defeated two amendments from opposition lawmakers that sought to soften the UK’s departure from the European Union and end austerity measures.
The vote means May has passed the first test of her new, tentative alliance with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. After this month’s election stripped the Conservatives of their majority, May was forced to make a deal that leaves her reliant on 10 DUP lawmakers to win votes on key issues.
May’s weaknesses were on display after Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond agreed to fund abortions for women in Northern Ireland to avoid getting shot down on the issue in a vote. There are stricter limitations on abortion rights in Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, and some Tories supported an amendment to give Northern Irish women free abortions in England.
A vote would have exposed cracks in the working arrangement between May’s party and the anti-abortion DUP. But the last-minute concession led to the withdrawal of the amendment, avoiding a potential falling-out in the relationship with the biggest party in Northern Ireland.
However, it also showed how vulnerable May is politically, and how quickly she can capitulate when under pressure.
The debate also showed that fractures remain in the main opposition party. Fifty-one Labour lawmakers defied party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s orders to abstain on the amendment seeking to keep open the option of Britain remaining in the European Union’s single market after Brexit. The rebels instead voted for the amendment, which was tabled by Chuka Umunna, the party’s former business spokesman.
Corbyn sacked three of the rebels, Ruth Cadbury, Catherine West and Andy Slaughter, from his team of spokespeople, while a fourth, Daniel Zeichner, resigned, saying on Twitter that he’s a “passionate pro-European and straightforward politician.”
The rebellion so soon after the election is a blow to Corbyn, who defied expectations by gaining seats in the election, consolidating his position after the bulk of his own lawmakers had failed in an attempt to oust him last year. Deputy Leader Tom Watson, who has himself clashed with Corbyn in the past, said he’s disappointed in Umunna for putting the amendment forward.
“It forced people to take a position on the single market earlier than we needed to,” Watson said in a Channel 4 News interview. “To break away like that is politically unhelpful at a time when the entire Labour Party is buzzing because we did far better in the general election than we thought we were going to.”
Still, Watson said the party would “get over it” and unite in order to hold the government to account on Brexit. “I’ll tell you what most Labour Party members think right now: They think Jeremy Corbyn walks on water and he’s the prime minister in waiting,” he said.