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Fri, 23 October 2020

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Indicative votes: the way to break the Brexit logjam?

Indicative votes: the way to break the Brexit logjam?
7 min read

With MPs painfully divided over Brexit, could an indicative vote break the deadlock? Matt Foster speaks to Hilary Benn and Frank Field about their respective plans to find out how the process could work 


“The Prime Minister’s deal has been rejected comprehensively,” says Labour MP Hilary Benn from his office in Westminster. “We know what Parliament is against. The question now is: what might Parliament support?”

The chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee is setting out the thinking behind a cross-party push for “indicative votes” on Brexit with an amendment he hopes MPs will get a chance to vote on January 29. “The House has said what it doesn’t like,” he tells us. “The obvious next question is: okay, so what might the House be prepared to support? The Prime Minister, despite having claimed that her door was open, has demonstrated that she hasn’t changed her mind at all.

“I think we now have to take responsibility for indicating where there may be an alternative way forward given that it seems she’s not prepared to contemplate one herself.”

At its heart, Benn’s amendment calls on ministers to allow a series of Commons votes on a raft of possible Brexit outcomes drawn up by his cross-party committee. Although the motions would not be binding, advocates believe the exercise would send a powerful signal to ministers and offer a rebuke to claims by May that MPs have rejected her deal without offering any positive alternatives.

If selected by Speaker John Bercow and backed by the Commons, Benn’s amendment would see MPs asked to effectively pin their colours to the mast and demonstrate which solution to the Brexit deadlock they might be willing to get behind.

In line with recommendations from the Brexit committee, they would be able to vote either for or against a fresh vote on May’s deal without any changes (“seems pretty futile,” Benn notes dryly); a renegotiation of her deal; a no-deal Brexit; or a second referendum.

The renegotiation option would also attempt to gauge support for May’s strategy of demanding changes to the Northern Ireland backstop as well as the Norway and Canada-style Brexits being talked up by some MPs.

“I certainly think that covers the main options that are available,” Benn says. “And I think the House should now have a chance to vote on them to see whether there is an alternative that might command a majority, or to see what the relative support is for the potential alternatives. It’s as simple as that.”

Benn is not the only Commons committee chairman making a bid for indicative votes, though, with veteran Eurosceptic backbencher and Work and Pensions Committee chief Frank Field tabling his own amendment calling for MPs to get a series of free votes on seven Brexit options through the same process.

The independent MP tells The House that his push – backed by Conservative former minister Ed Vaizey – will help to shift the focus from what he calls “endless procedural manoeuvrings” aimed at thwarting Brexit by Remain-supporting MPs who believe they “can read the country’s wishes”.

“For the first time, instead of the manoeuvrings, instead of all the lobbying that’s going on, instead of all this money that’s going into the Remain side, MPs would declare how they see fulfilling their commitment to implement the referendum decision,” he says.

“And the voters will be able to judge. I’m sure these lists then will become part of the next general election where MPs will be asked to account for themselves in a way they’re not normally asked.”

Like the Benn amendment, then, Field’s would offer MPs the chance to make clear what exactly it is they want: a fresh vote May’s deal with tweaks to the backstop; leaving without an agreement; extending Article 50; entering into a future Canada-style relationship with the European Union; a Norway-style future; or a new referendum. It also throws the prospect of a permanent customs union with the EU into the mix, a key element of Labour’s plan for a renegotiation.

Although Field is personally in favour of May renegotiating her deal and then pushing for a Canada-style trade deal, he tells The House that MPs “should have the freedom” to consider all the options that are now being openly discussed in the corridors of Westminster. “What we’ve had up to now is lots of people pontificating on what we believe – but nobody actually knows what we believe,” he argues.

As well as forcing MPs to show their hand, Field believes his amendment could help steer ministers through the complex next phase of talks on Britain’s future relationship with the EU. “The main part of withdrawal is to come,” the MP points out. “I mean, this is not it. This is, you know, barely having a few peanuts before a drink.”

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Although much in our tumultuous political moment can feel brand new, the latest effort to bust open the Brexit logjam does have a precedent. But, as Maddy Thimont Jack of the non-partisan Institute for Government think tank explains, the most notable previous example doesn’t exactly suggest it’ll be “simple or straightforward” if either of the Brexit amendments is passed.

In 2003, Tony Blair’s government asked MPs to try and solve an issue that had thwarted both the divided Cabinet and a Royal Commission: House of Lords reform. After a committee of both Houses managed to whittle the options down to five possibilities, MPs were asked to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to a host of different quotas for elected peers – as well as plans to make the Lords either fully appointed or fully elected. But in the end the Commons ended up rejecting every single option put before it – shunting red-faced ministers right back to square one.

While Thimont Jack is keen to stress that direct parallels between the 2003 debacle and the Brexit amendments now on the table can be overstated (for one, there was no hard deadline screeching into view), she points out that the Commons could still “end up without a majority for anything” under the process outlined by the two MPs.

“You could also have a situation where you get a majority for more than one thing,” the IfG researcher says. “It’s a very unlikely scenario given the makeup of the House, but what if you got a majority for no-deal and also for Canada Plus? Potentially you have similar people who are voting for both of them. Which one does the Government actually go for? Do you have a sort of elimination round?”

Without any way of ordering preferences, she adds, “you don’t really get around” the problem of how exactly ministers are meant to interpret what remains an advisory result.

In other words, then, indicative votes could simply confirm what many in the Cabinet already know instinctively: that MPs themselves remain painfully divided on how to proceed. Although two top ministers – David Gauke and Amber Rudd – have openly called for some form of indicative vote to take place, Downing Street has been less-than-receptive to the idea, meaning either plan could face an uphill struggle to secure precious Parliamentary time.

There’s also a risk it could alienate moderate Brexit-supporting Tories, who say their constituents want MPs to just get on with the job and usher May’s deal through. Bob Seely – Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight who voted for the Prime Minister’s May’s deal – says he is “suspicious of any indicative votes”. 

He tells The House: “Parliament is not government. It is primarily a legislature. For a rag-bag coalition to take control is not an act of romantic rebellion but a denial of basic democracy. It is sophistry and legal wind to say otherwise. The government is trying to fulfil the mandate given to us by the people of this country. It is being blocked by those who want to overrule that mandate.”

But it’s clear that support for the idea is gaining traction among some of those MPs who feel they have been shut out of the Brexit process for too long.

As Thimont Jack puts it: “I think there has been a problem with the fact that there hasn’t been a vote on say, the customs union, Norway, Canada, all of these things. And actually – that’s part of the reason why we’re in this position now.

“The House hasn’t really been able to express its will throughout this process – so now they’re trying to take back control.”

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