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  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
3 April 2019updated 08 Jul 2021 12:19pm

If Brexit comes down to more indicatives votes, there is little sign of a breakthrough

By Eleni Courea

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn will sit down this week and try to thrash out a Brexit deal they can agree on. If they fail, the fate of Brexit will come down to a series of indicative votes.

It would be the third round of such votes MPs participate in, after the first two failed to find a majority for anything. But they do agree on something this time, the government has pledged to abide by the result, as long as the opposition agrees.

The process requires MPs to cast a vote for any Brexit options they find palatable, such as a customs union, Common Market 2.0, a second referendum, and revocation in the event of no deal.

The problem is that so far, many MPs have shown little appetite to compromise and are instead demanding that those on the other side of the fence come round to their position. In Monday’s votes, none of the four options above won a majority, even with a sizeable number of abstentions and without the participation of cabinet.

Ken Clarke’s motion to add a customs union to the existing deal came the closest, with 273 votes for versus 276 against. A motion for a second referendum was the most popular with 280 votes in favour, but also the most opposed with 292 votes against.

Change UK, a.k.a. the Independent Group, is arguing that “top two options – Customs Union Brexit and confirmatory public vote – are obvious components for a compromise”. The breakaway party is among the proponents of a second referendum who argue it should be tacked onto the motion for a customs union deal, to unite supporters of the two. The result would be to go back to voters with a fresh referendum on a customs union Brexit versus remaining in the EU.

But Labour MPs who back a customs union aren’t happy with that proposal, which they don’t see as a compromise. “I’ve said consistently that I won’t back a People’s Vote and that hasn’t changed,” one MP who has never voted for May’s deal said, adding that he would have difficulty even backing an amendment for a long extension. “Brexit should happen on 12 April.”

“I would be unhappy if there was a composite amendment set,” another MP said. “I have always been clear that a People’s Vote should be off the table—and would only back it if we’re faced with no deal. We’re not there yet and I’m still committed to try and find a way through this process.” A third MP who backed a customs union said he was not minded to change any of his votes next time around. “Others are entrenched, nothing will move.”

The number of Labour votes in favour of a second referendum—or a composite motion that includes it—is therefore unlikely to grow. Meanwhile, second referendum proponents have no incentive to vote for a soft Brexit option such as a customs union when that is so close to getting a majority, because it will simply kill their own project at the point when it is closest to fruition.

A further reason it’s difficult to see Labour MPs climbing down is that they’re doubtful Tories will be allowed to vote with their consciences. Even though the government has nominally granted free vote in indicative votes so far, “it is clear that they have implemented an unofficial ‘soft whipping’ arrangement”, one MP said.

We may never find out the outcome of further indicative votes, if May and Corbyn agree on a deal and get it through parliament. But that will partly depend on how much pressure there is on Corbyn from the PLP. There is also a lot of scepticism in the about the government’s olive branch, and that will make it easier for Corbyn to justify turning it down. “I don’t trust her, it could be a trap, but he has a duty to try,” one soft Brexit-supporting MP said. Another argued that rather than being open to making concessions to Labour, May is trying for “a joint plan to DELIVER HER DEAL”.  

If indicative votes do happen, any plausible Brexit option will have to have a majority that’s stable enough for parliament to pass legislation to implement it. There is still little sign of such a breakthrough. 

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