Last night in the House, something novel took place. MPs were given ballot papers containing eight motions. They were to vote Aye or Nay to each of them; they could vote for or against as many as they wished. The results were then read out in the normal way.
None of the motions managed a majority. This presents us with an interesting dilemma. May’s deal has been voted down, twice; last night, no deal was trounced (240 majority against), as was revocation of Article 50; Any form of EEA/EFTA lost, worse than expected; a second referendum and remaining in a customs union came closest to passing, by 27 and 9 votes respectively. Literally everything that we as a country could do in relation to our relationship with the EU has now been voted down in the House of Commons, leaving nothing to do – and yet even the ability to do nothing has been voted down.
Brexiteers were rattled and it’s easy to see why. Mark Francois noted that a second referendum had been “trounced”, without bothering to note that the majority against another EU referendum was almost 10 times smaller than the one against no deal. This is because I think we are getting closer to the only possible route forward being a confirmatory vote on May’s deal.
If you tried to make sense of last night’s votes, the vague picture is this: MPs aren’t sure of what to do and are still spooked by being seen to be going against the 2016 referendum vote. As much as they can be lured out of their caves to express an opinion, they would slightly prefer a referendum over any of the other options available; slightly more than a soft Brexit, and much more than any harder form of Brexit.
The DUP said last night they would vote against May’s deal if it comes before the House again. Bercow is standing firm on his idea that the deal needs to change in a substantial way. This means that as it is, the deal won’t get voted on and even if it did, would not pass. May has to do something if she wants to avoid possibly being forced to revoke Article 50 on April 10th.
It seems to me she has two choices. Either agree to being in a permanent customs union post-Brexit, which may work to getting her deal passed, although I have my doubts. This would probably require Labour to whip the votes in favour, which I can’t see them doing. The other is attaching a confirmatory referendum to the deal. This has a better chance of passing because it does not require Jeremy Corbyn to support it.
I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat for new readers: May can get at least 200 on her side for her deal, even if it had a referendum attached. I think she could get more, but let’s stick to minimums here, just for safety. Between the Lib Dems, TIG, the SNP and smaller leftist parties she has an addition 60 at least to add to that pile. This means she only needs 60 Labour votes to pass the thing. I struggle to see how she wouldn’t get those votes given the circumstances. 71 Labour MPs signed a letter calling for a People’s Vote, and while a few of them I could be in danger of double counting since they have since left Labour for TIG, you’re still looking at your magical 60 number. These MPs aren’t exactly scared to rebel against the whip either, certainly not for something this monumental.
The question is whether May can make this relatively minor pivot. History suggests, no, she cannot. If she can’t, she will be left with either pushing ahead with no deal or revoking Article 50 come April 10th, unless the EU Council again takes pity on her again, which is unlikely.
But… is there a majority for any particular version of a ‘confirmatory referendum’? Once you get into issues like, what will the question be? Some might support such a referendum only if no-deal were on the ballot. Some only if no-deal wasn’t on the ballot. some might be happy with a three-option question, some not.
Whatever happens, even if ‘deal with a confirmatory referendum’ passes as a motion in principle, you’re looking at a lot of parliamentary wrangling, amendments, etc, to get the actual legislation through. Which might be fine if the government had a majority and therefore could pick a course and force it through, but, um, it doesn’t.
Also remember at that point May will be a lame duck, and probably about to be replaced by a far more hardline Leaver, who isn’t going to be terribly happy about a referendum which is just ‘this deal everybody hates, or Remain’, so the government won’t even be trying very hard to get the legislation through.
Paul W says
I agree. Trying to get referendum legislation through the current House of Commons would be, erm, a bit tricky at the moment. Nor am I convinced that a three-option question – with three official campaigns – would be welcomed by the Electoral Commission. Would it be decided by two-rounds of voting? And what would Brenda of Bristol say to that? Or would we use the Alternative Vote. Well, we all know what the Great British public thought of that bright idea, don’t we Nick?
Jenny Barnes says
You just need a different voting system. Clearly rejecting all possibilities is impossible in reality. So take the 8 possibilities, and each MP ranks them 1 to 8. Proceed as Single transferable vote, knocking out he least popular each round and transferring the 2nd (3rd…etc) choices to those remaining. It’s the least worst option. Obviously doing it as 8 binary choices leads to no result.
But, that still doesn’t guarantee to get an option which will pass an ‘aye/no’ vote, due to the fact it doesn’t take into account the fact that when it comes to the real thing MPs can vote against as well as for.
Paul W says
Jenny, one of the main problems with holding a single transferable vote election is not that it wouldn’t produce a “winner” out of a divided field – it would – but that the winning option would still need to pass the Aye or No test in the voting lobbies – where all of its outright enemies or, indeed, even some of its lukewarm, low (2nd, 3rd, 4th…) preference supporters could unite to defeat it. I’m not saying they would, but they could.
Matt (bristol) says
At this stage, despite my rampant LibDemmishness, I’d be prepared to back the withdrawal agreement on the basis that there would be a guaranteed referendum on whether the next steps were a Customs Union or a free trade agreement. (ie a referendum with both Remain and No Deal off the table). That’s probably not going to win any favours with anyone, though.
Paul W says
The Aye majority over No for this option or that option is not, in my view, the best measure of likely eventual success – particularly given that the number of non-voters across the eight options ranged from 74 to 195. A better measure, I think, is how close or far off the Aye or No vote is in relation to the certainty of securing an overall majority in the Commons. At the moment the winning post stands at 321 votes (or thereabouts).
None of the eight options came anywhere near to getting a positive Aye vote of 321. The closest was the Confirmatory Referendum option at 268 votes (four votes ahead of the Customs Union option). Three options had clear negative votes cast against them of 377 or more (the EFTA-EEA, No Deal and Standstill Transition options). Logic suggests that the remaining five options should go forward for reconsideration. But logic probably has little to do with this exercise, I fear!