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 House of Commons rejected the Government’s draft deal with the EU in January 2019, by a margin of 230 votes. This means that Parliament is currently at an impasse: MPs do not support the Government’s proposed deal; but a defeat on the Government’s Finance Bill earlier in January also suggests that MPs do not want to leave the EU with no deal – which, under the terms of the EU Withdrawal Act, is the default situation if no deal is reached and agreed by 29 March.
However, it is not clear whether any alternative to these two options could find support among a majority of MPs. A series of indicative votes on different options may be a means of testing the sentiment of MPs and narrowing down the range of options.
In essence, 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.
To help break the current parliamentary impasse on Brexit, indicative votes could happen in two different ways:
- ‘Formal’ indicative votes where a series of motions covering a range of different Brexit options are tabled and voted on by MPs.
- ‘Proxy’ indictive votes where amendments to existing motions (such as the Government’s Plan B motion) are tabled and voted on by MPs. While not formally being tabled in order to test the will of the House, amendments in this way could still be used to gauge MPs’ views on different Brexit options.
However, one problem with indicative votes – however they are undertaken – is 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. The Government would not be bound by the results of these votes, unless it chose otherwise beforehand.
One option is that indicative votes will be held through amendments tabled to the Government’s ‘Plan B’ motion, which it is due to present by 21 January. MPs will then be able to table amendments to this motion, which are currently scheduled to be voted on on 29 January.
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.
Although indicative votes offer MPs the chance to have their say on each motion or amendment tabled, the range of options – and order – that they would be able to vote on are crucial. This is because MPs may still vote tactically based on what they think their colleague will and won’t support.
If indicative votes were held through the tabling of amendments to the Government’s Plan B Brexit motion, then it would ultimately be the decision of the Speaker which amendments were selected for debate, and which order they were voted on.