Is today the day that Parliament finally takes control of Brexit?

Parliament may well be about to demonstrate that it has no better idea of what to do with it than Theresa May.


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The Cabinet is meeting to discuss a way forward on Brexit. The essential question is: do they want to be the author of a process of indicative votes – in which MPs vote on a series of Brexit options to gauge which, if any, commands the support of a majority in Parliament – or its victim? 

One way or the other, MPs are going to find a way to hold their own votes on the question. The last amendment to do exactly that failed by just two votes, and there are more than enough MPs who are planning to support it this time to secure its passage.

Also on the agenda at Cabinet: the fate of Theresa May as Prime Minister. The problem that anyone seeking to get rid of May has is that, without May’s co-operation and a managed succession, there simply isn’t time.

The view among those who know, both among CCHQ staffers past and present, and several former staff at Electoral Reform Services, who would have to run the ballot, is that you cannot conduct a leadership contest between now and 12 April, the new Brexit deadline. The process of balloting Conservative members would run past that. You cannot go past that date without European elections, which a majority of MPs are desperate to avoid. So all May has to do if she wishes to stay is to be stubborn, unyielding and unresponsive, all qualities that come naturally to her.

The more important question about those looming indicative votes isn’t ”What’s going to happen to Theresa May?”  but ”What are the anti-Brexit parties going to do?”. The SNP and Plaid Cymru are all enjoying an improved poll performance, not exclusively, but partly, because they have a clear message to Labour Remainers in Scotland and Wales respectively. The Liberal Democrats and the Independent Group aren’t doing as well in England yet but they have enjoyed a degree of success in the polls; the Liberal Democrats had a reasonably successful set of local elections last May and are hopeful of repeating the performance in this set. 

So it’s difficult to see how any of those parties can ever support a softer Brexit – but as it stands, it is even more difficult to see where the votes are going to come from in the two major parties to deliver a second referendum. After months of threatening to take control, Parliament may well be about to demonstrate that it has no better idea of what to do with it than the Prime Minister does.

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.