There’s nothing ‘definitive’ in PM’s latest Brexit ruse

by Luke Lythgoe | 14.05.2019

First, we had “meaningful” votes. Then we had “indicative” votes. Are we about to get “definitive” votes, as the prime minister struggles to find a way to break the parliamentary gridlock over Brexit? If we do, there will be nothing definitive about them.

Today’s Cabinet decided two things: to continue the fruitless cross-party talks with Labour; and to try to pass legislation for Theresa May’s Brexit deal before MPs go on their summer holiday, probably in mid/late July.

Given that the talks with Labour are getting nowhere, the government may instead ask MPs to rank a series of Brexit outcomes in order of preference, according to reports in the Telegraph and Huffington Post. The idea is that a voting system would be used whereby the least popular option would be eliminated and its second preferences assigned to the remaining options, then the second least popular option would be eliminated and so forth until there was a “winner”.

There are plenty of problems with this idea. First, Labour isn’t prepared to buy into it, according to Huffington Post. So would the government just soldier on alone? That is unclear. Downing Street merely says: “Ideally we would have Labour support in order to go ahead with these votes.”

Second, just because the process would produce a “winner”, there’s no guarantee that MPs will like it. If the idea that comes out on top was many MPs’ second or third choices, they won’t feel bound to pass the legislation implementing it.

Third, the options presented to MPs may not be specific enough. Take the proposal to enter a customs union with the EU. This was fairly popular in last month’s “indicative” votes and has been at the centre of the government’s talks with Labour. But the proposal is staggeringly vague. There are different ways to do a customs union, each with drawbacks which will put off different MPs.

Finally, can the government even be trusted to abide by the result of its own process? We’ve seen May flip-flop before in a bid to keep her angry Brexiter backbenchers happy. She could do so again if her definitive votes don’t produce a result they like.

Boris Johnson, for example, was today part of a group of MPs who wrote to the prime minister telling her not to agree a customs union with Labour – saying this would split the Tory party. Why wouldn’t he repeat the threat if a customs union came out of the definitive votes process?

When the EU offered a new Brexit deadline of Halloween, it warned our politicians “not to waste this time”. But that’s exactly what is happening.

This latest “definitive” votes scheme is hopeless. The British people need something genuinely definitive, and that means MPs putting Brexit to a public vote.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon