Indicative votes: A People's Vote just became much more likely

Indicative Votes: Historic new system throws Brexit into turmoil
Indicative Votes: Historic new system throws Brexit into turmoil
Ian Dunt By

The instant reaction, in the Commons Chamber and online, was exasperation. None of the eight ideas about Brexit put to MPs this afternoon commanded a majority. It was easy to paint it as a typically shambolic bit of parliamentary chaos.

But the truth was completely different. The fact there was no clear winner was as expected. Once the dust settled and you could take a hard look at the numbers, something was clear: This was a very good night for the People's Vote campaign.

We always knew it would go like this. It had been plain for a long time that there was no majority for any one option in the Commons. When Oliver Letwin was arguing for his system on Monday, before MPs voted to support it, he made it clear that it would be a multi-stage process. "My own view is that, at least to begin with, it may be wiser simply to disclose where the votes lie on a plain vanilla basis," he said. "We can, in the succeeding few days, having observed the lie of the land, zero in on a compromise that could get a majority." MPs then voted to pursue the idea.

This morning, in the business motion which preceded the debate, Letwin put aside a further day for the second stage of the process, which would move from finding the options with substantial support and see if any of them could secure a majority. He tabled it for Monday. The government whipped against it, in a last-gasp attempt to kill off the process, and they failed. 


Letwin's system put forward various ideas on Brexit and allowed MPs to vote 'yes' or 'no' on each of them. It worked better than expected. By the time it was done, there were surprisingly clear answers about what kinds of propositions might be able to secure support.

The ideas could be lumped into three broad categories: First, hardline Brexit - represented by a motion on no-deal and another on a standstill trade deal negotiation. Second, soft Brexit - represented by Labour's motion, a customs union proposal, and two single market models.  Third, the Remain options - represented by an amendment on a People's Vote and one on revocation.

The hardline Brexit options fell hard. John Baron's demand for no-deal lost by 160 votes to 400. Marcus Fysh's plan for a standstill negotiation on a trade deal fell by 139-422.

Soft Brexit did surprisingly badly. Labour's alternate plan, which does not specify a model, fell by 237-307. Nick Boles' much-publicised idea of Common Market 2.0 was defeated by 188 to 283. Another soft Brexit plan to stay in the EEA went even worse, with just 65 votes to 377.

On the Remain wing, the revocation plan was also badly defeated, by 184 to 293.

Two propositions stood out, prompting gasps as their numbers were read out in the Commons. Ken Clarke's proposal for the UK to stay in the customs union fell by just 264 votes to 272 - a majority of just eight. And Margaret Beckett's motion calling for a confirmatory public vote on whatever deal was passed fell by 268 votes to 295 - a majority of 27. It was a far tighter margin than expected and also the single largest positive vote for any Brexit option so far.

For comparison, Theresa May's deal was defeated by 432 votes to 202 the first time - a majority of 230. And then it was defeated by 391 votes to 242 the second - a majority of 149.

In the moments after the result, Tory MPs lashed out bitterly, shouting that it was absurd that more votes should take place on Monday. But it was all theatrics. They knew what the business motion said. They knew MPs had already voted to support it. They knew what the multi-stage plan involved. The truth was they'd been startled by how close the second referendum option was. Their only option was to try to undermine the process.

The question now becomes which options are brought back to be decided on on Monday. Logically, it should be customs union membership and a second referendum, but Letwin may want to include one or two more. There is also a question about the voting system. The introduction of a Single Transferable Vote or Alternative Vote system could help bring out the majorities, by taking account of MPs' least-bad outcomes, rather than the ones they actively support. And then there are the bigger questions: Do parliamentarians have the courage and tenacity to force the winning proposition on the government, if they can find it? None of this is clear.

But that's for a later day. The question for tonight was whether this process could throw up a few credible ways forward. It has done. Despite all the hysteria and theatrical condemnations after the vote, that was precisely what it did. The answers it provided were not quite what we expected. They suggest a customs union bolt-on to May's deal, subject to a public vote, would be likely to get through the Commons.

It's only been 48 hours since the Letwin amendment was passed. And already the Brexit debate is changing beyond all recognition.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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