Parliament is no closer to finding a way out of the Brexit mess

Something is needed to break the deadlock. But what?

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The song changes, but the result remains the same: no majority for anything in the House of Commons.

Parliament’s second set of indicative votes returned a broadly identical set of results to the first set: keeping the United Kingdom in a customs union came the closest to passing, with 273 votes in favour to 276 against, while the option of a second referendum once again attracted the most support, with 280 votes in favour, but was also more strongly opposed than any of the other Brexit end states, with 292 voting against. (282 MPs opposed plans to keep the United Kingdom in the single market and customs union after Brexit, with 261 voting in favour.)

One of the things that has been somewhat lost in the discussion of these indicative votes and what they mean is that the number that really matters is 322 – the number of votes necessary to have a majority of one in the House of Commons. But the bar for a majority is lower in indicative votes, when Theresa May has taken the decision to allow the Cabinet to abstain in order to avoid further government resignations, and where further numbers of MPs opt to abstain voluntarily.

Yet any Brexit end state needs to be able to command not just a one-off majority in an indicative vote, but an enduring one to pass the necessary legislation and to command enough support among the governing party that it can actually be negotiated by the executive.

Crucially, even an optimistic account of the number of Cabinet ministers willing to vote for any of the options voted on tonight would return just 14 votes, of the 27 in the Cabinet, at an absolute maximum. That means that, take together, the combined effect of every Cabinet minister voting would be to increase the number of votes needed from elsewhere by 14. (That’s assuming that the Cabinet would be allowed to vote freely, a planet-sized “if”.)

None of these Brexit options are close to passing, let alone passing by the required scale to overcome resistance among government ministers. Nor do any of them look likely to pass. For any of the soft Brexit outcomes to pass, they would require the support of at least some of the following groups: the anti-Brexit Independent Group MPs who refuse to vote for any flavour of Brexit, the minority of Labour MPs who are so strongly committed to a second vote they have refused to vote for and in some cases have voted against a soft Brexit, the majority of Liberal Democrat MPs who are following party policy to do the same, or the Conservative Party, which could not muster more than 37 votes in support of any of the options put before the House tonight.

This parliament cannot provide a majority for a flavour of Brexit that finds favour with the governing party. It doesn’t seem able to cohere behind any other flavour of Brexit either. Something has to shift – but what?

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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