Will the government ignore Wednesday’s indicative votes?

Ministers say they won’t be binding – but that doesn’t mean they won’t have political force.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

After a string of failed attempts, MPs voted to seize control of parliamentary business on Tuesday – and will hold a series of indicative votes on Brexit options tomorrow.

Those who advocated the exercise – including the Labour leadership and Conservative Remainers – hope they will produce a majority for an alternative plan: namely a closer economic relationship with the EU27 than that proposed by Theresa May. 

But, as the “indicative” label suggests, the government will not be compelled to deliver on the results, as several ministers have stressed in recent days. Steve Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, warned on Sunday that any set of votes “would not be binding”, while Theresa May told MPs yesterday that she was “sceptical” about the process. 

If the votes did return a majority for a single outcome or two or more non-exclusive outcomes that the government did not like, MPs would have limited recourse to force ministers to enact the House’s will. Their best hope, as the Tory MP Nick Boles has suggested, would be to seek to take control of the order paper again and legislate for their deal or a long extension that way – though there would be no guarantee of success.

Yet none of this to say that the votes will have no political force. Neither is it fair to say that the government will ignore the result. If a majority of MPs vote for two or more contradictory outcomes – as they did when given indicative votes on House of Lords reform in 2007 – May could reasonably say the process had failed on its own terms.

Paradoxically, a victory for an alternative Brexit plan, particularly a softer one, could prove useful for May as she courts Tory rebels ahead of a third meaningful vote on her deal. The stick of a majority for another plan, and with it the certainty of a longer extension, could prove a useful last-ditch inducement to loyalty.

The factions vying to prove that their Plan B should replace May's Plan A can therefore be sure that, if victorious, the government will take notice of MPs’ will. But it is more likely that they will use that will to engineer a politically convenient outcome rather than implement it.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.