Brexit: What are indicative votes?

MPs in Commons during PMQsImage copyright
UK Parliament

MPs have decided to try to break the Brexit deadlock by holding a series of “indicative votes”. But what does it mean?

Indicative votes are where MPs vote on a series of options designed to test the will of Parliament to see what, if anything, commands a majority.

In the case of Brexit, supporters of indicative votes believe it could provide a way out of the current political stalemate.

How will it work?

Usually the government has control over what happens day-to-day in Parliament, but on Monday evening MPs backed a proposal by a cross-party group of MPs, including Labour’s Hilary Benn and Conservative Sir Oliver Letwin, to take control of the timetable.

The precise format of the votes was not set out in the motion MPs backed in Parliament.

But Mr Benn told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the process will involve MPs putting forward a series of Brexit plans, such as a customs union with the EU or a free trade agreement.

Speaker John Bercow would select these on Wednesday and they will be listed on a piece of paper.

During the indicative votes, MPs will enter the division lobby – the corridors in the House of Commons where votes are normally counted – and will receive the paper and can vote on as many options as they are prepared to support.

There will be no way at this stage of marking an order of preference on the paper and the vote will not be secret, Mr Benn said.

The results would be looked at on Wednesday night to see which options have the most support and a second round of voting could also take place next Monday.

But the exact details are still to be confirmed.

Would MPs be forced to vote a particular way?

Usually, MPs are instructed to vote with their party line (a process known as “whipping”) and they can face repercussions if they don’t.

But with indicative votes, MPs might be allowed “free votes” – where they can choose to vote as they wish – meaning the final outcome could be substantially different.

Government ministers have indicated free votes are likely.

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UK Parliament

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Ken Clarke has suggested MPs should be able to vote in order of their Brexit preferences

Does it tie the government’s hands?

Any decision taken by indicative votes would not compel the government into pursuing that course of action, but would show what Parliament wants and where the most votes lie.

However, there is always a risk that either no single Brexit option secures a majority, or more than one does. If this happens then Parliament would still find itself deadlocked over Brexit.

If certain options such as Norway plus or another referendum are chosen and enacted by the government, it would require a longer extension to Article 50.

The prime minister has also warned that the votes could lead to an outcome which the EU would not agree to.

Have they happened before?

Yes. One occasion indicative votes were used was in 2003 when MPs were presented with seven different options on how to reform the House of Lords.

It produced exactly the deadlock some fear would be the case over Brexit as nothing was able to secure a majority.

This meant reforms were not passed and the status quo prevailed.

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Getty Images

Image caption

Indicative votes were used in 2003 over House of Lords reform, but it did not end the deadlock

But haven’t MPs already voted on all the options?

MPs have had a number of opportunities to vote on different ways forward over the last year, including holding another referendum, leaving without a deal and forming a customs union.

It’s a point that Theresa May has previously made.

“There have been votes in this House on some of the other proposals that have been brought forward, and those have equally been rejected”, she told the Commons.

But these have all been part of whipped votes attached to different pieces of legislation or debates, so the different proposals have not yet been considered side by side in the same context with MPs being allowed to vote freely.

There are a couple of proposals that have not been tested by votes in the House of Commons yet, including revoking Article 50 – effectively cancelling Brexit – and opting for a harder form of Brexit than Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, along the lines of the EU’s relationship with Canada.

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