MPs take control of the Brexit process in a rebuke to Theresa May

It’s not yet clear what MPs want to do with their control, however.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The House of Commons has voted by a decisive margin to hold a series of indicative votes on the ways out of the Brexit crisis, in the single biggest rebellion to soften Brexit since the vote of June 2016. 

The manner of the defeat, as well as the defeat itself, is a bitter blow for the government. Not only did they lose, but three ministers quit the government to vote against the whip, while Bob Neill and Nicky Morgan, two former perennial rebels who government whips hoped they had got back on side, recorded their first rebellions of 2019.

More significantly still, Parliament has broken the taboo and taken control of the legislative timetable from the executive for the first time in a little over a century. One reason why the whips of both parties like to avoid forcing MPs to rebel is that rebellion tends to become a habit. A Parliament that has voted to reject the executive once is more likely to do so again.

What does it mean for Brexit? Well, that’s less clear. While it puts Parliament on course to decide on its own how best to resolve the Brexit crisis, there is as it stands no viable path to a parliamentary majority for any of the Brexit outcomes. The majority for indicative votes was reliant upon a host of MPs who have vowed not to block Brexit, and a host of MPs who have vowed to find any means to prevent it. Take away either and there is no majority for anything.

Underlying the difficulty that MPs have in reaching concrete steps, Margaret Beckett’s amendment to force the government to hold votes seeking an extension if the United Kingdom gets within seven days of a no-deal Brexit was narrowly defeated. MPs still have a large appetite for taking control of Brexit in theory that ebbs away when they are presented with opportunities to do so in practice. It’s not yet clear whether that has changed.

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.

Free trial CSS