Brexit and ‘indicative votes’: MPs already voted down EEA, single-market-plus-customs-union demands and second referendum
In the recent discussions during the Brexit process and with UK government ministers suggesting that ‘indicative votes‘ be held in Parliament, a great deal of commentary has overlooked one key insight: that Parliament has in the past two years already voted down key precedented options, including the EEA-option, the single-market-plus-customs-union option or a second referendum. And they have voted down those options in legislative (amendment) votes, not indicative votes.
That current context leaves open only a number of defined, narrowed-down options for MPs in mid-January 2019: accept May’s non-negotiable deal, start managing a default WTO-terms arrangement (where no agreement can be reached) or, in my view, less likely, return to one of the earlier choices put to Parliament which are seemingly able to now obviate those earlier disadvantages.
Certainly, Parliament is always able to return to another vote on an identical or similar issue, particularly where the context has changed. Certainly, MPs could also vote the other way if they wish but MPs and Government will continue to be guided over the holding of the EU referendum in 2016 and the verdict of that referendum, along with the many parliamentary votes since triggering Article 50 and the passing of the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 – and clearly, where MPs already gravitated on each issue during those events.
Only in June 2018, the majority of MPs voted comfortably (by 327 to 126) against an amendment making EU withdrawal conditional on seeking, as an objective of the Government’s negotiations, an agreement which would enable us to continue to participate in the European Economic Area (EEA). Despite the case often being made, such an option has not seemed to unite Conservative and opposition factions as a ‘Brexit-lite’ option – it in fact split Labour three ways when the opportunity was presented to vote for it. In December 2017, MPs had already significantly voted against a proposed new clause that no minister may notify the withdrawal of the UK from the EEA Agreement.
On preserving a single market and customs union option, in January last year, MPs for example voted by 322 to 99 against an amendment to remain as a member of the single market and customs union after withdrawal. Again, given the certainty and consensus most Liberal Democrat MPs, some London-facing Labour MPs and a handful of Conservative MPs earlier professed they have in support of such an option, 48 Labour MPs voted with it when ordered to abstain by their party and it was strongly voted down. The vote went overwhelmingly against that option.
On a second referendum, back in December 2017, MPs voted down by a substantial margin (of 320 to 23) the holding of a referendum to choose between either accepting the terms of a withdrawal agreement or remaining in the EU. Earlier, in February 2017, 340 to 33 MPs had already voted down an amendment in which making a report on a referendum for ratifying the UK’s new EU relationship would be a prerequisite for the Prime Minister giving notification of the UK’s intent to withdraw. Neither could be said to compare with the legislating for the original EU referendum in the previous parliament of 2015 by a majority of 544 to 53 MPs in favour of a referendum (at second reading).
Many MPs then went on to applaud the vote in December on an amendment for a ‘meaningful vote’ in relation to the withdrawal agreement. And yet the vote itself has already presented a double-edged sword to MPs. It (positively) puts them all centre-stage but in a way that when MPs vote down and agreement they thereby return to ever-deepening dysfunctionality and paralysis. It effectively returns MPs to that disorderly situation providing no resolution, which was the reason they legislated for the 2016 EU referendum in the first place.
The precedent of previous votes can be employed as guidance in stormy waters because the narrowed-down options have already been internally presented to MPs for the past two years. So, now they must choose. Accept or reject (or amend?) the May deal. Or start managing a WTO-terms arrangement. Or return to one of Parliament’s earlier voted-down choices where insufficient numbers await.
Dr. Jim McConalogue researches and writes on UK politics, European integration and the Brexit process.