The move sets up a series of ‘indicative votes’ Wednesday on alternative Brexit options.
LONDON — It took them a while, but MPs have finally taken control of the Brexit process.
In a late night vote in the House of Commons which could have far-reaching repercussions, MPs voted 329 to 302 — a majority of 27 — for a backbench plan leading to a series of “indicative votes” on alternative Brexit paths. In the process, what was left of Theresa May’s political authority was shredded as MPs chose to reject a personal plea by the prime minister to stop short of the drastic move.
May’s own deal, she herself admitted on Monday, still does not command enough support in the Commons for her to even bother bringing it back for a vote.
The success of Conservative MP Oliver Letwin’s amendment, which clears the way on Wednesday for MPs to bring forward their own Brexit motion and indicative votes, breaks the government’s grasp on the parliamentary timetable. One fellow Tory MP, Brexiteer David T.C. Davies, grumpily observed Letwin was now effectively “a jobbing prime minister.”
In so doing, it places a range of possibilities firmly on the table, including those — such as a soft Brexit customs union compromise, and even a second referendum — that May refuses to countenance.
Precisely what the Commons will support remains unknown — the point of the exercise is to find out. But one unintended consequence of Monday night’s vote could be to increase the chance that — in a last gasp effort to regain control — May will play her final card: a general election.
But such is the breakdown of May’s authority this week, the government is no longer even pretending to be guiding events.
Thirty Tory MPs, including three ministers, rebelled against the party whip to back the Letwin amendment — viewed as parliament’s best chance of avoiding no deal in the absence of support for May’s deal.
The move “upends the balance between our democratic institutions and sets a dangerous, unpredictable precedent for the future,” said a spokesperson for the Department for Exiting the European Union.
“While it is now up to parliament to set out next steps in respect of this amendment, the government will continue to call for realism,” the spokesperson said, calling for MPs to choose options that were “deliverable in negotiations with the EU.”
Leading backbench MPs must now determine what those options are. May still retains the option of bringing her deal back to the House of Commons for a third vote, but ministers have said this will only happen if there is a good chance the vote can be won. Talks on Monday with May’s parliamentary allies the Democratic Unionist Party, whose support is seen as critical in persuading Conservative Brexiteers to swing behind the agreement, yielded no breakthrough.
May’s best hope is for Brexiteers now to acknowledge that a no-deal outcome is off the table, and to back her agreement as the least worst option. The Commons has rejected no deal twice already and as May herself said: “Unless this House agrees to it, No Deal will not happen.”
As for the upcoming indicative votes, the proposition most likely to command a majority is some form of soft Brexit compromise involving a customs union and potentially alignment with single market rules as well. The opposition Labour party favors the former while Conservative backbenchers like Letwin and his ally Nick Boles favor the latter, and the two sides have held talks in recent days.
On the question of a second referendum, leading figures who will shape parliament’s decision in the days to come — including Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer and Conservative former Attorney General Dominic Grieve — indicated on Monday that a public vote might be considered separately to proposals on how to leave the EU.
“It would be possible to say that whatever deal that was at the end of that exercise it ought to be subject to the lock or safeguard of some sort of confirmation vote,” Starmer said.
Responding to the government’s defeat on the Letwin amendment, opposition Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said that “where the government had failed, [MPs] must succeed” and urged that the Commons find a majority way forward, while also considering “whether any deal should be put to the people for a confirmatory vote.”
But while MPs might be in the driving seat, Theresa May remains prime minister and if the House of Commons instructs her to follow a course of action not in line with her party’s 2017 election manifesto, then she might argue that an election is the only democratic way forward.
May pointedly referred to her manifesto commitment not to enter into a custom union with the EU in a statement to MPs earlier on Monday, and made clear she would not be an unquestioning facilitator of whatever MPs instruct.
“No government could give a blank check to commit to an outcome without knowing what it is,” May said. “So I cannot commit the government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by this house.”
One senior government official familiar with the thinking inside May’s inner circle said that the result of the Letwin amendment passing would be to raise the chances of an election.
“The fundamental calculation has not changed. By taking control of the order paper MPs have only increased the chances of an election. That has been on the cards for a long time now but it’s only getting more likely,” the official said.
Another senior official pointed to the fact that 80 percent of voters in 2017 backed parties — the Conservatives and Labour — which had committed to delivering Brexit. If parliament were to instruct the government to take a course of action contrary to that, there would be a question of “how you resolve that” tension, the official said.
An election, of course, raises the prospect of a second delay to Britain’s exit from the European Union, perhaps lasting until the end of the year or longer and requiring the U.K. to take part in elections to the European Parliament in May.
Labour MP and Chair of the Brexit Committee Hilary Benn told MPs Monday he would use Wednesday’s debate to vote for a permanent customs union and a “confirmatory referendum” of the final deal. Both proposals would break Conservative Party manifesto commitments, increasing the chances of a snap poll being called under May or a replacement Tory leader. Benn, however, was adamant: “MPs must guide the way through,” he said.