20 March 2019

Both the Government and backbenchers have suggested there might be a series of votes to test Parliament’s Brexit preference. The process is doomed to fail if MPs refuse to compromise, argues Joe Owen.

Despite suffering two enormous defeats to her Brexit deal, and despite MPs from across the House making the case for alternative forms of Brexit, Theresa May is not giving ground.

In most cases, governments which suffer such huge defeats would start to plan for a general election. But in the week following the second big rejection of her Withdrawal Agreement, and with less than two weeks until the scheduled Brexit date, the Prime Minister is instead working out how she might bring her deal back to the House.

Many MPs want an opportunity to find where the majority lies in the House of Commons

If the Government fails to get its deal through at the third or fourth attempt, it has committed to ‘facilitating a process’ that would try to find where a majority lies in the House of Commons. This so-called indicative voting, which MPs like Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn and Oliver Letwin have been calling for, would see MPs vote on Brexit options and attempt to find Parliament’s preference.

The hope is that MPs would be forced to nail their colours to a mast. If they were unsuccessful, they would have to start compromising. But would that really work? If it is to do more than telling us that views across the House are irreconcilably split then two things need to change: MPs’ behaviour and Commons procedures.

There is nothing to suggest that MPs will refuse to rule out any Brexit options

In the (now almost complete) two-year Article 50 period, it is hard to point to any option that has been definitively ruled out. The Prime Minister’s deal is just another example of that.

A second referendum has been rejected by Parliament, but MPs continue to campaign for one. A customs union has been voted against, but the Lords have placed an amendment to the Trade Bill that would ask MPs to vote on one – again. Votes on single market membership and a customs union have failed in the past, but MPs who support ‘Common Market 2.0’ think their day is still to come. Parliament has ‘ruled out’ no deal, but those MPs who support such an outcome believe they just need to hang on long enough to get what they want.

Every group, including the Prime Minister, seems to think that if they simply wait it out then the others will abandon their positions.

Indicative votes won't break the impasse – individuals MPs must do that

There no guarantee that making MPs vote on a series of options would break the stalemate. There is a question of procedure, with any process would no doubt be hugely contentious. MPs would no doubt compete for their favoured option to be presented last, in the hope that it would gain support as other proposals were rejected by the Commons. To solve this issue, Conservative MP Ken Clarke has suggested that MPs rank their preferred options in a secret ballot – in the same way select committee chairs are elected. If a majority of MPs back an option that is not the Prime Minister's deal then it would be voted on by the whole House. If MPs can’t find an alternative, the Prime Minister’s deal is the default.

This approach could solve the procedural problem, but is still not guaranteed to change anything. If, for example, MPs chose to back a ‘Common Market 2.0’ or ‘Norway Plus’ option after a series of indicative votes, the Government would still need to negotiate changes to the Political Declaration with the EU. This would almost certainly involve concessions, and there is nothing to guarantee that MPs would continue to support any negotiated outcome.

Parliamentary process and procedure can’t be relied on to fix this political problem

The Prime Minister is clearly not yet willing to give up on her deal. It is, after all, the only negotiated option on the table and it is hard to see any alternative between ‘remain’ and ‘no deal’ that wouldn’t contain most – if not all – of the legally binding text.

The problem is that she is not alone in being unwilling to give up on her view of the best form of Brexit. Parliamentary procedure, even if tweaked to help, isn’t going to fix this stand-off. Ultimately, a resolution will only be found when MPs are prepared to start moving from their chosen positions and accept that they will need to settle for a Brexit deal that may not be at the top of their list. If they don’t start to compromise, then many MPs could yet end up with a Brexit option which they believe is the worst of all possible worlds.