My Deal or No Deal no longer. Flying blind to Brexit with a choice of deals. Theresa’s desperate plan for survival

Call it a lottery, call it chaos. Call it parliamentary democracy adapting to an unprecedented situation.

From Laura Kuennesberg

Theresa May has told MPs that a third vote on her Brexit deal may not take place next week “if it appears there is not sufficient support“.  In a letter to all MPs, that was one of four “clear choices” she outlined, along with revoking Article 50 which she says would “betray the result of the referendum”, leaving with no deal, or getting her deal approved next week.

The final option relies on Commons Speaker John Bercow allowing her to bring the deal back after he previously ruled that another vote couldn’t be held without “substantial” changes to the deal. She offered to talk to MPs over the coming days “as Parliament prepares to take momentous decisions”

The final choice could depend on how these “ indicative votes “ are managed.

The former No 10 adviser Baroness Camilla Cavendish sets the scene in the FT.

A colossal battle now looms in parliament, between sects and heretics. For the truth is that Brexit has turned both main parties into sects, in which anyone who deviates from narrow lines is persecuted. Extraordinary numbers of MPs now face the threat of being sacked by their constituencies. In Labour this has been driven by both Brexit and Marxism. The nearly 100 Labour MPs facing possible deselection include both Remainer Yvette Cooper and Brexiter Kate Hoey: articulate women whose chief fault is to be independent-minded.

In the Conservative party, lawyers are now advising constituency associations on deselecting Remainers. Nick Boles twice voted for the prime minister’s deal, unlike many Brexiters. But his constituency party has broken with him because he had the temerity to also propose a Norway-style arrangement. Other Tories fear no confidence votes and are receiving death threats.

The key to what will happen next lies in the number of MPs who have been left out in the cold, as big tent politics has given way to sects in bunkers.

On Monday, the dogged cross-party group led by Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn will table an amendment which could set Britain on a different path. They seek to let the House of Commons debate and vote on a series of alternatives to Mrs May’s deal, including a second referendum and a status like Norway’s.

A blind multiple choice system will be used to winnow down the options. The votes will be counted at 7pm on Wednesday night. At that point, we may know whether there is a parliamentary majority for anything. Many things could go wrong. A similar amendment was defeated by only two votes a few weeks ago, though this time it seems to have support. Parliament may prove as indecisive as it was over House of Lords reform in 2012, the last time the multiple choice system was used.

The Institute for Government explains the  complexities MPs may be letting themselves  in for.

How would the voting process work?

Indicative votes usually take the form of a series of votes on a range of motions, each of which sets out a different option. MPs are able to express their support or disapproval for each individual motion, meaning that they could choose to support more than one motion. This method is in keeping with the way MPs usually vote in the Commons.

Alternatively, MPs could be asked to rank the different Brexit options in order of preference – in a similar way to the election of select committee chairs. The ballots would then be counted under the Alternative Vote system. Any option receiving more than half the first preference votes would win. If no option commands such support, the option with the lowest number of first preference votes would be eliminated, and the second preference votes of those who voted for the eliminated option would be allocated among the remaining options. This process would continue until one option commands majority support. This form of indicative votes was proposed by Ken Clarke in an amendment in February.

What options could indicative votes include?

For indicative votes to be effective on breaking the Brexit impasse, a difficult balance must be struck between ensuring MPs are satisfied with the range of options they can choose between and making sure the options offered have a realistic chance of being negotiated with the EU. MPs must also be willing to compromise.

On 13 March, the Exiting the EU Committee proposed four options that MPs could vote upon as part of a series of indicative votes:

  • Option 1: To hold another vote in Parliament on the draft Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on the framework for the future relationship
  • Option 2:To leave with no deal
  • Option 3: To call on the Government to seek to re-negotiate the deal to achieve a specific outcome, with the main renegotiation possibilities identified as:
    • seeking changes to the text in the Withdrawal Agreement on the backstop arrangements
    • seeking a Canada-style deal
    • seeking to join the EEA through the EFTA pillar and remaining in a customs union with the EU or a variation on this.
  • Option 4:To hold a second referendum to allow the British people to decide either which kind of Brexit deal they want or whether they wish to remain in the EU. We also said that option 4 – to hold a further referendum – was not necessarily an alternative to the first three options but could be combined with any one of these options.

Does the Government have to accept the outcome of indicative votes?

The Government is not usually bound by indicative votes, unless it has agreed to be so beforehand.

Even if indicative votes demonstrated a parliamentary majority in favour of a particular Brexit stance, there is no guarantee that the Government would adopt it in negotiations with the EU, although the political pressure to do so would be very high.

What are the problems with indicative votes?

There are several potential problems with the usual method of holding indicative votes as a series of votes.

  • First, it is possible that more than one option could command the majority of the House, and it is unclear how either Parliament or the Government would proceed if this happened.
  • Second, it is also possible that no option would gain a majority among MPs and therefore fail to resolve the impasse.
  • Third, the usual approach to indicative votes encourages MPs to vote tactically based on what they think their colleagues will and won’t support and makes the order in which the options are voted on important, and potentially controversial.

The preferential voting option, as suggested by Ken Clarke, could avoid these issues, but would still require consensus among MPs as to how the process should work.

Mrs May not feel obliged to submit any of the other alternatives to the EU. She would torn between terrific pressure to do so, and the implacable opposition of her own Brexiteers who would try to bring her down. But her own deal could in the end fare as well as any of the others.

This is blind Brexit indeed.

 Two neat comments on the situation.

From Mark Francois MP, implacable hard Brexiteer.

When a free vote is offered on the choice, there is no government.

And from David Grossman of Newsnight.

It’s like jumping off a cliff and trying to build an aeroplane on the way down.

My bet is on Norway plus, by a nose.