Indicative votes are votes by MPs on a series of non-binding resolutions. They are a means of testing the will of the House of Commons on different options relating to one issue.
The Government has opted to delay Parliament’s meaningful vote on the draft deal the Prime Minister reached with the EU. But it is not currently clear what, if any, alternative options could command a majority in the Commons.
Therefore, some ministers and others have suggested a series of indicative votes on different Brexit options – such as a Norway-style deal, no deal, or a second referendum. They believe this could be a means of testing the sentiment of MPs and narrowing down the range of options.
MPs are asked to vote on a series of motions, each of which sets out a different option. They are able to express their support or disapproval for each individual motion, meaning that MPs could choose to support more than one motion.
This might mean that more than one option could command the majority of the House, and it is unclear how either Parliament or the Government would proceed if this happened. It is also possible that no option would gain a majority among MPs. Government would not be bound by the results of these votes, unless it chose otherwise beforehand.
Given the time constraints that the Government and Parliament are operating under, it is likely that these motions would have to be tabled by the Government, rather than by opposition parties, so that Government time could be used to debate and vote on them.
These votes could be held either before the meaningful vote on the Government’s proposed Brexit deal or after it (if the deal is defeated).
In 2003, MPs were presented with seven different options for reforming the House of Lords, and were able to vote on each individual option. No option garnered a majority among MPs. The votes were not binding – meaning that the then Government did not have to follow the sentiment MPs had expressed. However, the 2003 votes were only advisory, and did not relate to a motion giving something statutory effect (as any indicative vote prior to the Meaningful Vote would do). This means that there is no direct precedent for indicative votes being used in this way.
Indicative votes could be free votes for MPs of some or all parties – meaning that MPs would not be whipped and required to follow a party line. It is likely that the votes would have to be free, as was the case in 2003, if the purpose of them was to understand the views of MPs.
There is also the question of which options MPs would be able to vote on, and the order in which they would be taken – as although they could express a view on each motion tabled, MPs may vote tactically based on what they think their colleagues will and won’t support.
Each of the motions would be amendable, and the order in which amendments to each motion were taken would also be important, as this might influence the way in which MPs vote.