Lansons Conversations

What are the indicative votes?

The Government has temporarily lost control of the timetable for placing motions in front of the House of Commons, meaning MPs have taken control from the Prime Minister of what they get to vote on.

This was made possible by an amendment tabled last night by Oliver Letwin in which Ministers were defeated by 27 votes, with three of them resigning to vote against the Government.

This means that MPs can now hold a series of votes on their preferred option for the way forward on Brexit, given the current impasse over the Prime Minister’s deal. The trouble is that several of the options have already been defeated, when tabled as amendments to the previous Meaningful votes. So it is not at all certain that any of the alternatives might gain a majority in the Commons. 

What are the alternatives?

Unusually, to avoid a situation in which all options are voted down, it is proposed that the least popular option is knocked out until only one option remains. The trouble with this is that MPs will have to game plan in what order to vote for various amendments to ensure that their preferred outcome reaches the final round, meaning people may make odd choices in the first few rounds.

The options are likely to include some or all of the following, though there is no guarantee as to which options might be selected, because it is down to the Speaker John Bercow to decide. Bercow has decided to be what might charitably be described as a ‘hands-on Speaker’, meaning some do not trust him to be an unbiased referee.

  • Revoke Article 50 – meaning we stay in the EU indefinitely, since many feel there is no way out of the impasse, though this may have unexplored consequences for trust in the the political system.
  • Propose a long extension to Article 50 – meaning we must stage the European Parliament elections, giving extra time to build momentum for those who want to overturn the result of the referendum.
  • Leave the EU with no deal – a position that MPs have ruled out, and that the PM has said will only happen if MPs specifically vote for it.
  • Hold a second referendum – again, MPs have ruled this one out previously and it is not clear what the question might be.
  • Common Market 2.0/Norway Plus – Tory backbencher Nick Boles’s plan to leave the EU and enter the European Free Trade Area. Upsides – no hard border in Ireland and we leave the CAP/CFP; downsides – we don’t have control over immigration and remain a rule taker.
  • A Customs Union – a plan of Jeremy Corbyn’s in which we remain in ‘a’ Customs Union, because he doesn’t like the backstop, which is a Customs Union.


How will this all play out?

Still to be confirmed, but some have suggested that rather than vote in the normal fashion, MPs may be given pieces of paper on which to mark as many options as they wish, with a further vote the next night with one option knocked out. This is proposed to start tomorrow night.

Brexit MPs remain concerned that the prospect of leaving the EU is receding, which is largely their own fault for not signing up to the Prime Minister’s deal earlier. With Speaker Bercow now in full swing, there’s no guarantee he will even agree to Theresa May bringing her delayed meaningful vote back a third time, especially if the indicative votes present a clear outcome that is not compatible with her deal. 

Prime Minister in a bind

The Government has been clear it does not consider these votes binding, though if a huge majority indicate they are in favour of one outcome it will be difficult to ignore. If the Prime Minister finds that option totally unpalatable – a second referendum for example – she may then decide it is time to step down. If she tries to go on, she may instead find that she loses a vote of no confidence, and Jeremy Corbyn is given a chance to find a majority in the House of Commons.

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