What are indicative votes and will they solve the Brexit crisis?

25 Mar 2019


Later today, MPs will vote on whether to hold a series of ‘indicative votes’ to find a way out of the ongoing Brexit impasse. Indicative votes are usually non-binding, and are used to help indicate (get it?) what course of action might command a majority in the House of Commons.


The Prime Minister is understandably wary of indicative votes, which would wrestle even more control from her and hand it to Parliament, and she has instructed Conservative MPs to vote against Oliver Letwin's amendment that would make them possible. 


Of course, there is every chance that the votes will only expose further divisions among MPs - but it is a risk many are prepared to take. So, if Parliament votes for Letwin's amendment, what kind of indicative votes might MPs be asked to take?



No Deal


The first option MPs could be asked to vote on is leaving the European Union without an agreement. While this option has been roundly rejected by MPs on a number of occasions, it is likely that, should indicative votes occur, a no deal scenario would have to be presented.


Despite this, leaving without an agreement is not likely to gather substantial support - even staunch eurosceptics like Jacob Rees-Mogg do not regard it as their preferred outcome.



Revoking Article 50


Although some MPs have stated that they would support the revocation of Article 50 to halt the Brexit process entirely, this option still seems unlikely to command anywhere near a majority in the Commons. Even pro-EU parties like the Liberal Democrats and the SNP remain committed to the idea of a second referendum to decide the issue.


While a cohort of MPs have suggested they would support revoking Article 50 if the only other option was No Deal, we are far from that stage yet.


 Pictured: Justin Trudeau meets Theresa May. Canada spent seven years negotiating a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU.


Free Trade Agreement 


A proposal that has not been formally tested yet in the House of Commons is negotiating a Free Trade Agreement. This approach is the preferred option for a large slice of eurosceptics and is based on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement - a deal that took seven years to negotiate.


In theory, an FTA could allow the UK to retain tariff-free access to almost all of the European Market but there are concerns over whether this proposal can tackle the issue of the Irish border, and Labour believe it would strip away workers rights and regulatory standards. Don’t expect this option to take MPs by storm.



Déjà vu


The Prime Minister is likely to bring back her Withdrawal Agreement to the Commons for an indicative vote. You know, the Withdrawal Agreement that has already been defeated twice, by enormous margins, by MPs of all stripes at Westminster.


Whilst May could convince some MPs to support her agreement, either by beefing up the Political Declaration or perhaps by setting a timeline for her own departure, it is still unlikely to gather enough support.


One surprising idea, however, from veteran europhile Kenneth Clarke, could turn events in May’s favour. Clarke has suggested that MPs should rank their preferred options in the indicative votes, eliminating the least popular as they go.


If this were to happen - and that is a big ‘if’ - the Withdrawal Agreement could emerge as a realistic option, once rebellious Tories have had their first or second preferences eliminated.



Second Referendum


On Saturday, in London, the “Put It To The People” March attracted in the region of a million participants, giving oxygen to the prospect of a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.


Support for a so-called ‘People’s Vote’ has been gaining traction amid the intensifying political crisis at Westminster. Nonetheless, precisely how pro-EU parties would secure a second referendum is still unclear.


The prospect of another vote rests almost entirely on whether or not the Labour Party supports it - something it has has been rather reluctant to do so far.


Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, has suggested that he would back the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement if she allowed a second referendum to take place, but Jeremy Corbyn is yet to get fully behind this position.


Then there is the headache over what question or questions to put on the ballot paper. Whilst supporters of it want it to be a choice between the PMs deal and remain, Brexiteers insist that the option of no deal, or a harder Brexit, should also be on offer.


Pictured: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been reluctant to embrace calls for a second referendum.



Customs Union & Single Market


This is the option that Corbyn is still championing, and would see the UK join the European Economic Area (EEA) along with countries like Norway and Iceland.


A key component of Labour’s Brexit policy is to deliver “the exact same benefits” as our current EU membership, and since we are members of the Single Market and Customs Union, a Norway-style relationship with the EU would deliver something resembling this.


Once again, however, do not expect this to emerge victorious in the indicative votes. Many Conservative MPs are completely opposed to its consequences: the UK continuing to pay EU budget contributions, and being beholden to a raft of EU legislation.



So those are the likely options that MPs will face if indicative votes go ahead. And while some will be wondering if they can really dig themselves out of a deepening hole, others will be hoping that Parliament can find a new direction capable of gaining a Commons majority.


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