Theresa May promised to give MPs a vote on her unpopular Brexit deal in the third week of January but immediately faced a Labour motion of no confidence in her leadership.
The UK prime minister still hopes Brussels can offer “reassurances” to MPs over the terms of Britain’s exit deal before the crucial vote and that over the Christmas break some of her Eurosceptic critics will come to view it as the best deal on offer.
Mrs May sought to buy time on Monday by declaring that she would hold the “meaningful vote” on her Brexit deal in the week starting January 14. Last week she postponed the vote after admitting she faced defeat by “a significant margin”.
The exit deal with the EU is deeply unpopular with Leave and Remain supporters alike, with criticism focused on “backstop” measures that would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, insisted that Mrs May’s deal was unchanged after she left an ill-tempered EU summit empty-handed last week and was “not going to change”. He said the prime minister should move to a vote on the agreement “straight away”.
Critics suggested that Mr Corbyn’s push for a motion of no confidence in Mrs May herself was a gimmick intended purely to embarrass the prime minister, since there is no binding parliamentary mechanism for such a vote.
The Labour leader has shied away from calling a confidence vote in the government, the traditional route to bring down a weak administration. Mrs May would be expected to win any such vote, since Tory MPs do not want to trigger a general election.
According to Labour policy, the party would back a second EU referendum if a general election was taken off the table. Mr Corbyn’s critics suggest the Labour leader’s misgivings about a second referendum is another reason why he is reluctant to propose a vote of no confidence in the government.
It will be up to the government to allow time to debate the motion of no confidence in Mrs May, although Labour expects that to be granted immediately.
Labour chief whip Nick Brown told his MPs that Mr Corbyn would table a no-confidence motion in the whole government if time was not granted. Downing Street said it was considering the motion.
Mrs May is hoping she can limp into the safety of the Christmas break and there were signs that Conservative Eurosceptics were willing to declare a festive truce after last week’s bruising confidence vote.
Leading rebel Jacob Rees-Mogg said the prime minister now had his confidence, having announced shortly after Mrs May’s victory by 200 to 117 that she should travel to Buckingham Palace to tender her resignation.
David Jones, a former cabinet minister and member of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, said: “I don’t think there is any likelihood that any member of the Conservative party will support Labour on this censure motion.”
An ERG source said the group would be supporting Mrs May, suggesting Mr Corbyn had found a way of uniting the Tory party. Tim Farron, former Liberal Democrat leader, joked: “Can we have a vote of no confidence in the government and the official opposition?”
However Mrs May still faces a difficult week and will on Tuesday chair a cabinet that is showing signs of a breakdown of collective responsibility, with ministers openly urging her to test other forms of Brexit in a series of Commons votes.
The prime minister, reporting to MPs on last week’s ill-tempered European Council, insisted the EU was still willing to offer reassurances to MPs that the Irish backstop would be temporary.
She admitted that the summit had seen some “robust” exchanges, but insisted “further clarification” was possible on the terms of Britain’s exit. Downing Street said officials would continue talking and that discussions in Brussels were “ongoing”.
However the European Commission appeared to reject that assertion, saying that “the deal on the table is the best and only deal possible”, adding: “No further meetings with the UK are foreseen.” No additional EU summit is planned in January.
Downing Street appears to view a Christmas hiatus as a crucial part of its strategy to revive Mrs May’s deal. “The temperature is so high,” said one ally. “We need everyone to get away from here and take a deep breath.”
The prime minister has rejected a second referendum, saying it would cause “irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics” but Downing Street has refused to rule out holding “indicative votes” on different Brexit options, as demanded by some cabinet ministers.