What can we learn from the indicative vote results?

Sienna Rodgers
© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor
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Last night, MPs were presented with eight Brexit options – and said no to all of them. That wasn’t unexpected, given that the voting system used allowed MPs to vote against as well as for proposals, rather than just offering the opportunity to express positive preferences. But it has provided the government with ammunition and made the Prime Minister appear vindicated in blaming parliament for the impasse, as they can now more convincingly say: MPs are the problem, they only ever say no to ways out of this chaos, let’s return to voting on the deal that we’ve got.

The fact that some kind of preferential voting system wasn’t used means the results easily lend themselves to misleading interpretations. In actual fact, the option with the slimmest defeat was Ken Clarke’s customs union motion. It was rejected by only eight votes – something that should be repeatedly pointed out whenever last night’s losses are compared to rejections of May’s deal, which was rejected by majorities of 230 and 149 votes.

The motion that won the most support, with 268 ‘Ayes’, was Margaret Beckett’s bid for a “confirmatory public vote” on “any” deal. This was a good result for the People’s Vote campaign. However, a few things cannot be ignored…

1. It was defeated by a substantial 27 votes.

2. It was helped by the fact that Labour whipped in favour – a curious decision, in my view, considering that this made indicative votes even more like the amendment ones we’ve already conducted several times, depriving MPs of the chance to reveal their true, ‘I’ll do it on the night’ preferences.

3. Which means the votes for another referendum were probably maxxed out last night, in a way that the votes for, say, Common Market 2.0 were not. When it really comes down to it, in a binding vote, there would likely be more shadow cabinet rebels.

4. PVers are right to highlight that if their proposal is for a vote on any deal, it is not really a Brexit ‘option’ at this stage. MPs must first get behind a version of Brexit, so that ‘Remain’ has something to counter on the ballot paper. That makes the decision of some to vote against softer options than May’s deal strange – why would they rather risk losing to a Tory deal than a Norway-style one?

Labour’s whipping arrangements were a risk – not only because it undermined the concept of indicative votes, but also because senior frontbenchers strongly opposed to another referendum were bound to rebel. And so they did: Andrew Gwynne, Jon Trickett and party chair Ian Lavery all defied the whip to abstain on the motion. Although shadow housing minister Melanie Onn quit to vote against it yesterday, and a handful of other juniors resigned earlier this month to abstain on a PV amendment, there is no sign so far that the shadow cabinet members will have to step down as a result. Backbenchers who were pleased by the leadership’s decision to whip for Beckett yesterday won’t be as delighted today.

What’s the way forward? Theresa May has finally come out with the last thing she has to offer: her resignation. She will not stay in office for the next stage of Brexit after her deal has passed, she told Conservative MPs yesterday. But will this help get the deal over the line, assuming the Speaker even allows it to be put to another vote? Opportunists such as Boris Johnson are ready to switch, as are others who are ready to back a hard Brexiteer replacement. But without DUP support, the numbers still aren’t there – and the chances of Labour MPs switching are even lower with the knowledge that a Tory who favours no deal could be responsible for shaping our future relationship with the EU. We are still deadlocked.

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