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27 March 2019

What are the Brexit options that MPs are voting on tonight?

John Bercow has 16 potential amendments to put before the House. But what are they, and could any of them win a parliamentary majority?

By Stephen Bush

MPs will tonight vote in a series of indicative votes about the best resolution to the Brexit crisis. Most expect that none of the options will be able to command a parliamentary majority but they may put the Commons on a course to finding a Brexit proposal a majority can coalesce around.

The numbers to watch are 318 and 242. 318 is, of course, half the number of sitting MPs plus one – a parliamentary majority. 242 is the number of MPs who supported the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration on its last appearance in the Commons. The big contest today is not to command a majority but simply to be the closest to a majority. But what are MPs voting on?

John Bercow will select which of the 16 amendments to put before the House, weeding out the duplicates and others at his discretion. But what are the 16 amendments?

Amendment A has no direct implications for Brexit – it deplores the success of MPs in taking control of the order paper and is seeking to undo that process. But it also declines to back the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, meaning it will struggle to get support outside of the hard core of committed members of the European Research Group who have signed it – if Bercow even selects it for a vote. It has no chance of passing and isn’t even well-placed to unite all supporters of Brexit.

Amendment B would take the United Kingdom out of the European Union without a deal on 12 April. It’s not going to pass and is only useful for better informing Conservative Kremlinology, and for that reason we should all hope that John Bercow selects it. 

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Amendment C commits to passing the withdrawal agreement with the backstop removed. If any of today’s options get a majority, it will likely be this one. We know there is a narrow majority in the Commons for this but it doesn’t matter, because the EU cannot deliver it since it would mean putting the political demands of a departing member state (the UK) over one that is remaining (Ireland). That would pose an existential threat to the European project and is therefore not going to happen.

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Amendment D, the Common Market 2.0 proposal, would seek to amend the political declaration to agree membership of the Efta’s EEA pillar and a customs arrangement with the EU. Although the UK might not end up in Efta itself, something like this could be successfully negotiated with the EU. Although it is not going to win a majority today, it is the closest possible relationship with the European Union that is capable of commanding a parliamentary majority in the House of Commons as it is presently constituted.

Amendment E reiterates MPs’ support for the Brexit process. This has a good chance of being selected as it has cross-party support. It is fronted by the Conservative backbencher Will Quince, who a lot of opposition MPs know, like and respect, having worked with him on campaigns to improve the care and treatment of bereaved parents. This has a good chance of getting a parliamentary majority but that doesn’t really matter because “upholding the referendum result” doesn’t, in and of itself, actually say anything about where parliament wants to go, other than out of the EU. If it isn’t selected, that will be why.

Amendment F would keep the United Kingdom in a customs union after we leave the EU. It has very little prospect of being selected because it has no cross-party support and is only being backed by Labour MPs who think that the referendum vote was for a) free movement to end and b) as close as possible a trading relationship as you can achieve given a). If selected, the interesting question will be if any of the Labour MPs in Remain-dominated seats who agree with that diagnosis but have yet to put their heads above the parapet join Jim Fitzpatrick, one of the signatories, in going against the majority of their electorates.

Amendment G calls for revocation if the United Kingdom gets within four days of a no-deal Brexit. It doesn’t have as much cross-party support as Amendment L, which is virtually identical and which you’d assume is more likely to be selected as a result.

Amendment H would seek membership of the EEA’s Efta pillar but wouldn’t join a UK-wide customs union, so the UK could seek its own trade deals after Brexit. While this won’t pass, and is unlikely to be selected as it has no cross-party support, it is worth keeping an eye on who votes for it, if it is selected. This is because it could yet become the mainstream position within the Conservative Party, if it can win a majority and decides that Northern Ireland is already different from the rest of the United Kingdom as far as agri-food and energy is concerned and that a few more regulatory barriers in the Irish Sea aren’t the end of the world. (Several Brexiteers, both those supporting and opposing May’s deal, are privately of the view that this is the most desirable post-Brexit end state.)

Amendment I would make any Brexit deal subject to the consent of the devolved institutions. Not going to pass, unlikely to be selected by the Speaker. The main utility of this amendment, whether selected or not, is to better allow the SNP to prosecute the argument that Brexit is a project of England being inflicted on Scotland against its will.

Amendment J would keep the United Kingdom in a customs union. It is more likely to be selected than Amendment F as it has cross-party support and is one of the possible Brexit end states that might be able to command a majority eventually.

Amendment K is Labour’s official plan. It is a little harder than the Common Market 2.0 plan as it wouldn’t include the free movement of people and would therefore have a slightly lower standard of market access. As it is tabled by the leader of the opposition it is certain to pass but also certain to be unable to get enough Conservative support to get a majority.

Amendment L would revoke Article 50 should the United Kingdom reach the deadline without a deal.

Amendment M would subject any Brexit end state to a confirmatory public vote. This will give us a good idea of the size of the second referendum caucus, but, more crucially, will tell us whether any other Brexit end state can plausibly pass without the support of MPs who want a second referendum. (The answer is probably no.)

Amendment N is the Malthouse Compromise again. It has a smattering of cross-party support but possibly not enough to be selected (it is essentially a Conservative-DUP affair.) In any case, it can’t be negotiated with the EU.

Amendment O would essentially seek a “managed no deal”: a series of mini-deals and a transition to a no-deal Brexit. Unlikely to be selected as it has no cross-party support, is essentially just an ERG thing, and the EU isn’t going to negotiate it, because only the British parliament would ever negotiate away its leverage (by triggering Article 50 without guarantees from the executive).

Amendment P is a no-deal amendment that would guarantee EU citizens’ rights and reciprocate any measures to manage no deal put forward by member states. It has no effect on Brexit and no cross party support, as well as being unlikely to pass and unlikely to be selected. 

That’s your lot. The big question is: what will the supporters of the worst-faring amendments do next? Will they cohere around a compromise measure, or double down on their preferred way out of the crisis?