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Brexit: What are indicative votes?


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The term “indicative votes” has joined the crowded field of Brexit jargon recently. 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 deadlock.

How would it work?

Before any indicative votes can take place, MPs must secure the parliamentary time for debate. Usually the government has control over what happens day-to-day.

MPs have tried – and narrowly failed – to take control away from the government in recent weeks, but a fresh attempt by a cross-party group of MPs, including Labour’s Hilary Benn and Conservative Sir Oliver Letwin, may prove successful on Monday evening.

However, to avoid being forced, the government could voluntarily set aside time for MPs to debate – something ministers have previously suggested.

Though the precise format is unknown, one possible process would see a series of motions being presented setting out each Brexit option. MPs would then vote on each option in turn with the results announced after each vote.

But this would mean that the order in which the choices are presented would be very important. That is because once each Brexit option is rejected, it would not be voted on again.

That means each group of MPs would be fighting for their preference to be voted on last, in the hope all other options are rejected and theirs is the last one standing.

Ken Clarke – the longest-serving MP in Parliament – has suggested MPs ranking their preferences to avoid this issue.

Alternatively, MPs could vote on all options at the same time with every result announced at the end – this would lessen the likelihood of tactical voting.

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.

When have they happened before?

The last time 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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Indicative votes were last 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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