The Prime Minister goes into the christmas break knowing that defeat is still possible when the Commons votes on her Brexit deal in January. But if Parliament rejects the deal, it is far less clear what MPs would like to see in its place.
To try and find what alternative option could command the support of MPs, a series of indicative votes have been suggested, to allow MPs to express their views on a range of different options. This may be one way to break the parliamentary impasse—but to do this, the government will need to think carefully about how it schedules and sequences the votes, the options it will present, and how it will actually use the votes.
As proposed, indicative votes would see MPs asked to vote on a series of resolutions, which would not be binding on the government. Each resolution would offer a different Brexit option, which MPs could support or reject. Presumably, votes would be free—rather than whipped—to allow members to express their own views.
The potential benefit of such an approach would be to demonstrate what the will of the Commons is, and whether there is, in fact, a majority for one of the various Brexit options on the table. In the event that the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected by Parliament, indicative votes could help shape an alternative course of action.
But to ensure that any indicative votes are as useful as possible—they they really do allow the government to understand the will of MPs—they need to be carefully designed. That means that the Prime Minister—and the managers of government’s business in the Commons—will have to consider certain key questions. In doing so, they have very little precedent to draw on.
First, they need to get the sequencing right. The votes could be held ahead of the meaningful vote—which could have the potential benefit to the Prime Minister of concentrating minds, or allowing MPs to express their views before they have to vote on her deal. However, given that Parliament does not return from its Christmas break until 7 January, and the meaningful vote is due the week later, there is now unlikely to be much time available to do this.
That means that any indicative votes would most likely need to take place after the meaningful vote—assuming, of course, that the Prime Minister’s deal was defeated. Given the time constraints Parliament is working under, this would need to happen quickly.
Second, the government would also have to think carefully about what options they would ask MPs to vote on. There are several things they could present—from no deal, to a Norway-style deal, or a second referendum.
If ministers truly want to understand the will of the Commons, they they will need to give MPs the fullest range of options. That means understanding all the different ideas currently being discussed by MPs in the corridors of Parliament.
They will also need to think about the order in which those options are presented. While each motion would stand alone, and MPs would be able to express a view on each motion, the ordering could offer scope for some game-playing by MPs as they try to predict and shape the views of their colleagues.
This would particularly be the case if the motions were amendable—which in theory, like all motions, they would be. Tactical voting would not necessarily give the government what it needs: a clear picture of MPs’ views on every different option.
Third, the government would need to be clear with MPs how they would use any indicative votes—and how they would deal with any potential complications. The motions would not be binding on the government, unless it chose otherwise.
But ministers could commit themselves to following any course of action that commands a majority—or that is the most popular among MPs. Or they could state that the indicative votes were purely advisory—to simply understand the views of members.
They will also need to consider how to deal with any potential headaches. Because MPs would be able to vote on each motion, they could vote for more than one. That could mean that no option attracts a majority—or even emerges as a clear favourite.
This is what happened back in 2003, when the then-government asked MPs to vote on seven different options for reforming the House of Lords, but none commanded a majority of the Commons. The government needs to consider what it would do if something similar were to happen.
The 2003 votes are the closest precedent that the government has for how a series of indicative votes might work—but even this precedent is not quite like the current situation.
In 2003, the Commons did not need to agree a position as a clock ticked away. More than this, the votes were purely advisory, and were not held in the shadow of a specific government plan—or a such a deeply divided Parliament.
This means that there is little for the government, should it decide to forge ahead with a series of indicative votes. They may offer a solution to the current impasse—but only if the government ensures they do.
By Dr Alice Lilly, senior researcher at the Institute for Government.