1 April 2019

The second round of “indicative votes” on various Brexit options will take place today. In the previous set of voting on Wednesday, the Speaker selected 8 of the 16 options tabled by MPs. All 8 were voted down, though there were a large number of abstentions and the margin of defeat varied considerably. The 8 options from last week and their negotiability with the EU have been considered in a previous blog.

This time, only 8 options were tabled, and the Speaker selected 4 – a customs union, “Common Market 2.0,” a confirmatory referendum, and a plan to revoke Article 50 to avoid No Deal. 4 were not selected – the EEA/EFTA model, leaving with No Deal, an additional referendum motion, and a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop.

The range of choices MPs face is therefore narrowing, though it is not clear that this will enable them to coalesce behind any one option. In addition, it is possible that an option might ‘win’ in indicative votes but still be short of a stable parliamentary majority (320), due to abstentions. This possibility reinforces the argument that indicative votes do not alter the fundamental choice facing MPs, and are not guaranteed to give the UK any certainty.

Today’s Business motion also sets aside Wednesday 3 April for a further day of indicative voting. It is unclear what process this third round would follow; there has been speculation that the most popular option from today could be pitted against the Prime Minister’s deal.

The options MPs have put forward are difficult to compare directly. They can be considered in three distinct categories, as outlined by Professor of EU law Phil Syrpis:

  • Substance – what sort of deal with the EU do MPs support?
  • Process – if MPs do support a particular deal, is a parliamentary majority enough? Or is a further referendum needed?
  • Default – if MPs do not support any deal, what should the ‘default’ consequence of that be – a No Deal Brexit, or revoking Article 50?

Substance options

Motion C: Customs Union (Ken Clarke, Conservative)

Who supports it?

  • A cross-party group of MPs, most of whom backed Remain in 2016.
  • All of the Conservative signatories voted for the deal; most from other parties did not. Some signatories support a second referendum; others are strongly opposed.

What does it say?

  • It states that any Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration must include a commitment to negotiate a permanent UK-EU customs union, and that this objective should be enshrined in UK primary legislation.

Did MPs vote on this last week?

  • Yes – it is identical to the Customs Union motion from last week, which lost by just six votes – the smallest margin of defeat.

Is it negotiable with the EU?

  • Likely, yes. The EU has said that it is open to a long-term customs union with the UK, and that this option could be written into the Political Declaration very quickly. However, the details would be subject to future negotiation.

 

Motion D: Common Market 2.0 (Nick Boles, Conservative)

Who supports it?

  • Another cross-party group of MPs, led by the Conservative MP Nick Boles and the Labour MP Lucy Powell.
  • Most of the signatories backed Remain, but two Conservative Leavers – George Eustice and Andrew Percy – are also supporters.

What does it say?

  • It calls for the renegotiation of the Political Declaration towards a ‘Norway Plus’ style relationship with the EU. Under this plan, the UK would remain in the single market via the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) after the transition period, and enter a “comprehensive customs arrangement” – effectively a customs union – with the EU.
  • This rewritten Political Declaration would then be written into the Withdrawal Agreement Bill as a “legally binding negotiating mandate.”

Did MPs vote on this last week?

  • MPs voted on a version of this last week, and it was defeated by 283 votes to 189.
  • However, the proposal has been reworked in several places. Notably, the customs part of the plan would now include “a UK say on future trade deals,” in line with the Labour Party’s policy.
  • The plan now also includes a commitment to negotiate a legally binding Joint Instrument with the EU which confirms that the provisions of the plan would supersede the backstop in full. This may be designed at winning support from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who abstained on the proposal last time.

Is it negotiable with the EU?

  • Potentially – it leaves the Withdrawal Agreement intact, and focuses instead on changes to the Political Declaration (which the EU has said it is open to considering).
  • However, there are several challenges this proposal would face.
  • First, joining EFTA will require the agreement of the EFTA states, as well as the EU – and combining this with a customs union could be challenging to negotiate.
  • Second, the addition of “a UK say” in EU trade deals is a challenge. Much depends on what this “say” would mean – consultation may be possible, but a formal veto is much less likely.
  • Third, whilst this future relationship would likely supersede the backstop, it is far less likely that the EU would be willing to commit to this in a legally binding Joint Instrument in advance.

 

Process option

Motion E: Confirmatory Public Vote (Peter Kyle, Labour)

Who supports it?

  • Cross-party advocates for a second referendum – mostly Labour MPs, but also including MPs from the Independent Group, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and a few Conservatives.

What does it say?

  • Refuses to approve the ratification of any Brexit deal unless and until it has been approved by the people in a confirmatory referendum.

Did MPs vote on this last week?

  • Yes – this is exactly the same as a motion in the name of Labour MP Margaret Beckett, which MPs voted on last week. It was defeated by 295 votes to 268.

Is it negotiable with the EU?

  • A referendum would require a long extension of Article 50 to be negotiated with the EU, which would include UK participation in European elections. EU approval for such an extension is likely but not guaranteed.

 

Default option

Motion G: Parliamentary Supremacy (Joanna Cherry, SNP)

Who supports it?

  • The SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Independent Group, with further support from some Labour MPs and one Conservative (Dominic Grieve).

What does it say?

  • If the UK is two days away from a No Deal Brexit, the Government would be required to seek an extension to Article 50.
  • If the EU does not grant the UK an extension, the Commons will vote on whether to proceed with No Deal, or revoke Article 50.
  • If Article 50 is revoked, there will be an inquiry into whether any model of Brexit might have majority support in the UK. If so, there may be a referendum on whether to trigger Article 50 again to pursue that model.

Did MPs vote on this last week?

  • Not exactly. They voted on a different amendment, also in the name of Cherry, which sought to revoke Article 50 to prevent No Deal. Unlike today’s motion, it did not entail seeking extension before revoking.
  • The previous Cherry motion was defeated by 293 votes to 184.

Is it negotiable with the EU?

  • The extension part of the plan would be subject to negotiation, as the motion provides for.
  • The revocation part of the plan could be done unilaterally, and would not need negotiation.
  • The plan to consider re-triggering Article 50 may run into obstacles; revocation can only be done “unconditionally,” and is not a tool which can be used to buy more time. On the other hand, it is not clear in practice how the EU could restrict the UK’s right as a member state to trigger Article 50 again.

 

Further reading

Dominic Walsh: How negotiable are the pathways outlined by the options for indicative votes?

Stephen Booth and Aarti Shankar: Indicative votes won’t give the UK much certainty over Brexit

Aarti Shankar: ‘Suspending’ Article 50: what options does the UK have?