We need extra time, not just indicative votes

by Hugo Dixon | 25.03.2019

Today’s Cabinet won’t see a coup against the prime minister, as some papers had speculated over the weekend. That scheme failed when the plotters couldn’t agree who should replace her. Instead, ministers will discuss two key issues: whether to try to get the government’s deal through the Commons this week and whether to get MPs to vote on rival ideas.

The answer to the first question seems likely to be “no” after Theresa May made no progress in talks with hardline Brexiters including Boris Johnson at a summit at her country residence in Chequers yesterday. Without their support, she won’t have any chance of getting a majority for her deal.

Meanwhile, the prime minister may be about to perform another u-turn – this time by letting MPs hold “indicative votes” on alternative ideas, something she previously resisted. But the details of what she is proposing are murky – and it is far from clear that this will be a good faith exercise to find a good Plan B. More likely, it will be an attempt to scupper plans by backbench MPs to take control of the Commons “order paper” to do something similar.

The key question is whether or not the government will commit to act on anything MPs decide. If not, it will be another time-wasting stitch-up.

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Many reports have said that an amendment pushed by a cross-party group of MPs today is calling for “indicative votes” on Wednesday. That’s not quite right. The amendment, in fact, calls for Wednesday to be set aside to discuss Brexit – leaving a blank canvass over what the Commons actually does on that day. (See amendment a)).

While it’s good that MPs want to take control of the process, it would be premature to hold indicative votes. It’s unclear which options MPs would get to vote on. Without more preparatory work, they could end up voting on unicorns such as a Canada-style deal – which is not negotiable with the EU because it is incompatible with the notorious “backstop”.

Or they could vote on unspecified ideas such as a Norway-style deal. The Tory version, touted by Oliver Letwin, is not the same as Jeremy Corbyn’s version. If MPs back a vague version of Norway, they will be committing themselves to a blind Brexit.

Rather than determining the country’s future in a rushed process of multiple-choice speed dating, MPs should take time to flesh out a robust Plan B. It needs to be specific and negotiable with the EU. The priority for MPs should be ensuring we get adequate time to do this, rather than holding indicative votes. (Two amendments being proposed today c) and f) touch on this.) That will mean shifting the new April 12 cliff edge that the prime minister agreed in Brussels last week.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

One Response to “We need extra time, not just indicative votes”

  • Out of sheer curiosity: what really made May turn to hard brexiteers out of all the factions she could have turned to? Big mouths and Latin recitals from a few “personalities”? What a joke.