A row erupted between Labour and the SNP last night after the shadow chancellor accused Nicola Sturgeon of demanding his party call a confidence vote in the UK Government in the full knowledge it would fail.
Amid appeals for Labour to act immediately, a defiant John McDonnell said his party would table a motion “when we can win it” and also said the SNP was running scared of Labour’s growing strength in Scotland.
And he accused the first minister of trying to force the issue at this juncture because she wanted to “avoid a general election”.
As the official opposition, Labour is the only party guaranteed government time for a motion of no confidence.
Mr McDonnell’s intervention came after Ian Blackford issued an ultimatum to Jeremy Corbyn to take action by the end of the day at a joint press conference of leaders and MPs campaigning for a referendum on the Brexit deal.
The Press and Journal understands Labour cancelled Mr Corbyn’s meeting with Mr Blackford shortly afterwards.
And as events moved on, the prospect of the SNP and Labour joining forces against Theresa May looked increasingly unlikely.
Mr McDonnell said: “The prime minister’s going off to see what she can get in terms of renegotiations or whatever and we’ll see what she brings back.
“The SNP have got their own motivation, which is to try and avoid a general election, I think.
“Who can delve into the mind of Nicola Sturgeon, but my view is that they want to lose a vote of no confidence and then avoid a general election because they know we’re breathing down their necks in Scotland. We’ll take seats off them in so many marginals.
“They’re terrified of a general election. They’re sitting on a large number of marginal seats at the moment and we’ll take them.”
Responding, an SNP spokesman claimed the shadow chancellor was “clutching at straws”, adding his party would “relish a general election” as the “only party which has been consistent in its opposition to the Tories’ Brexit shambles” and with recent polls suggesting “we would win seats from Labour, not the reverse”.
But he added: “This is not the time for game playing or finding excuses to do nothing – it is a time for clear and decisive leadership.”
At the press conference, sitting in front of a sign that read “If not now, when?”, Mr Blackford said the opposition parties would take matters into their own hands if Labour didn’t seize the moment.
Reaching out in the Commons later, the Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP added: “I respectfully say to you – you will have our support if you table a vote of no confidence. It is time for the prime minister to go.
“This is not a time for floundering. It is a time for leadership.
“We want to work with you, we have a choice to bring this shambolic government to an end with a motion of no confidence”.
A Labour party spokesman said on Monday it would put down a motion “when we judge it most likely to be successful”.
A spokesman suggested this would be when the prime minister returns to the House with the “same deal” at which point she will have “decisively and unquestionably lost the confidence of parliament”.
Yesterday, Mr Corbyn indicated this remained the case, telling MPs: “We need to do the appropriate thing at the appropriate time.”