GTMC Brexit Update
Yesterday (25/03/2019) saw No.10 buffeted throughout the day by various groupings in the Conservative Party and of course the DUP – the official line on MV3 and indicative votes changed throughout the day and the PM limped into the EU debate and votes in the evening. It culminated in Parliament passing an amendment which essentially took control of Parliamentary time from the Government. A significant precedent has been struck.
For weeks now backbenchers like Cooper, Boles, Grieve, Letwin and Benn have pushed amendments that have sought to do this. They have variously tried to take power from Government for a specific time to pass legislation that extended Article 50 if no progress had been made by a certain date (something Government refused to do) and latterly to secure time to work through a process called “indicative votes” that would explore which option would command a majority (again something the Government had resisted over a number of weeks). The Government had very late in the day agreed to hold indicative votes themselves but trust is in short supply at the moment and Parliament decided the only way this could be guaranteed is if they held the reins. They won their amendment vote by 329 to 302 with a handful of Ministers resigning their positions to vote against the whip.
The EU had last week given the UK two Brexit extension options with this type of development in mind. The first was to May 22nd to pass the required legislation if May won her MV3. The second was to April 12th to decide what route forward the UK wanted to take. It is this April 12th window that the indicative votes process is intended to take place within and in theory will pave the way to the UK changing its negotiating position.
What are indicative votes?
You are going to hear a lot about indicative votes in the coming days so it is worth taking some time to understand what they mean. In essence it is a new way of voting that enables Parliament to feel its way towards a position that can carry a majority of the House – it is the model that will give voice not just to what Parliament doesn’t like but works out what it can live with.
Much of the work has been done over the past months and the process will look something like this (although, as ever, the position is fluid and meetings are taking place today to define it exactly):
- Next 24hrs – groups of MPs will submit their options (Norway, Canada etc..) and the Speaker will identify those that have sufficient support to take forward to the voting stage.
- Wednesday (March 27th) – from 2pm onwards MPs will debate the various options and vote upon those that they want or, importantly, could live with. It won’t be a normal vote but one in which MPs indicate support for options on slips. In the words of Letwin “On that basis we could discover which propositions that have been put forward commanded significant support, and which did not”.
- Monday (April 1st) – those options that command the most support will then be taken forward for a run-off process. This isn’t nailed down yet but it could see a preferential voting system whereby MPs rank their preferences 1-5. Eventually, the thinking goes, it will lead to an option emerging that can confidently command the support of the House if it was negotiated with the EU.
These are not binding votes so the PM does not have to change tack to reflect them and can at any point attempt to bring back her MV3 (more on that below). There are suggestions, voiced by Nick Boles MP, that they could use Wednesday 3rd April to pass legislation that compels No.10 to change its negotiating position to their preferred model if necessary. Suffice to say this is a huge constitutional change and a truly historic precedent if it comes about.
The expectation at the moment is that if this process runs its course then a soft-Brexit result is most likely to emerge (something akin to May’s deal with a permanent customs union tagged on – not far from Labour’s position).
There are a number of developments we should keep an eye on:
- Will the ERG/DUP blink? – We have written this many times over the past few weeks. A rational approach would suggest that they can see the choice is now between May’s deal and a softer Brexit imposed by Parliament (what they refer to as BRINO – BRexit In Name Only). There are signs that influential ERG members are folding – see Jacob Rees-Mogg this morning – the question is how many will hold out. The DUP are another puzzle altogether and at the minute seem implacably opposed to May’s Deal.
- No.10’s Reaction - No.10 still have MV3 in their back pocket if they can get it past the Speaker (who ruled it would need to be substantially different to be brought back) and may wait until the most opportune moment to give a final bash. That could well be after Parliament has dismissed the harder Brexit options and a softer Brexit course is about to be set. If May brought her deal back then how would the ERG, DUP and Labour rebels fall at that point? Remember also that No.10 has the nuclear option of a General Election to reach for. Rumours persist and while it brings a whole host of complications (who would lead the Conservatives? What would the Brexit manifesto position be? Would they risk a Corbyn Government?) it could be the final way to prevent the Executive being stripped of authority by Parliament.
- Has the 2nd ref gone away? – the momentum has shifted away from the 2nd ref but it isn’t dead. What will probably kill it is if it is included as an option in the indicative votes. There aren’t likely to be enough supporters for it in that scenario. However its biggest proponents have been keen to ensure that it is seen as different and as a confirmatory vote for whatever options emerges from the indicative votes process. The odds are long but it still staggers on.