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Brexit Guide: What Happens Now That Parliament Has Seized Control

Demonstrators wave large European Union flags as they stand on Parliament Square during the anti-Brexit People’s Vote rally in London on March 23, 2019. Photo: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg via Getty Images

With the clock ticking down to the U.K.’s briefly extended Brexit deadline, Parliament voted on Monday night to wrest control of the process away from Prime Minister Theresa May and her government. Now Parliament is set to hold a series of votes on Wednesday on several potential paths forward.

Under the two-week reprieve E.U. leaders granted May in Brussels last week, the country must either pass the deal May negotiated with the other E.U. countries, come up with a viable alternative, or crash out of the bloc with no deal on April 12. In the past few days, May reverted to her strategy of furiously whipping support for her plan, to no avail. On Monday, she acknowledged to the House of Commons that there was still not enough support in the chamber to hold another vote on her deal.

A short time later, the house voted 329 to 302 in favor of an amendment put forward by Conservative MP Oliver Letwin to hold a series of votes that will determine which options have majority support. Rogue MPs scheduling a vote against the wishes of the government is a marked departure from standard procedure in the British system, so Letwin’s motion was highly controversial.

May opposed the Letwin amendment vociferously and attempted to corral Tory MPs into voting against it, but it passed with 30 defections from her party, including three ministers who resigned their cabinet posts to vote against the government. She had previously tried to nip the amendment in the bud by offering to arrange her own series of votes on Brexit alternatives, but backers of the motion said they didn’t trust the government to present MPs with the full range of options.

Monday’s vote was the latest and greatest in a series of Brexit-related humiliations for May, illustrating how completely she has lost control over the process and how great a wedge it has driven between Parliament and her government. The significance of this event may be somewhat inscrutable to those following Brexit developments in the U.S., where such conflicts between the Legislative and Executive branches are more routine. Here’s an overview of what happened, why it matters, and what it means.

What’s an indicative vote?

In U.K. parliamentary parlance, an indicative vote is a nonbinding vote in the House of Commons meant to gauge support among MPs for a policy proposal and find out whether it could command a majority. Indicative votes generally come in sets, with Parliament voting on several proposed solutions to a given problem — in this case, the Brexit deadlock — so MPs can vote for more than one option. Since the idea is to determine the mood of Parliament, they are also often free votes, in which MPs are not whipped to follow the party line.

Indicative votes don’t usually commit the government to any particular outcome, even if they result in a clear preference, and May was quick to note in the Commons on Monday that she “cannot commit the government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by this house.”

This type of vote is unusual, but previous governments have used them to take Parliament’s temperature on controversial questions with many possible answers. For example, Tony Blair’s government held indicative votes in 2003 to build consensus around a plan for reforming the House of Lords as a partially or wholly elected body. In that instance, MPs voted down every single option, and Lords reform remains stalled to this day.

Why was Monday’s vote such a big deal?

The Brexit debacle has already created an unusually adversarial relationship between the U.K. government and Parliament, bringing the country to the verge of a constitutional crisis over the separation of powers. In a statement responding to the passage of the Letwin amendment, the spokesman for the Department for Exiting the European Union warned that it “upends the balance between our democratic institutions and sets a dangerous, unpredictable precedent for the future.” Indeed, this vote represents a disruption of the normal order, but not everyone agrees that this is necessarily a bad thing.

In the Westminster system, the government usually sets the agenda for Parliament, deciding what gets voted on and when. The opposition and backbench MPs are given opportunities to set the house’s business on certain days, but the government still gets to decide when those days are. Letwin’s motion is unusual because it involves taking that power away from the government on a specific day, and against the government’s explicit wishes at that. While it’s not strictly “unprecedented,” Parliament hasn’t made a move like this in a very long time: The closest analogue in the past century is the Norway Debate of 1940, which led to the downfall of Neville Chamberlain’s war cabinet and ushered in the prime ministry of Winston Churchill.

In her futile attempts to maintain control of the Brexit debate, May has recently avoided scheduling days for nongovernment MPs to take control of the agenda, fearing precisely what is going to happen on Wednesday: votes on proposals her government didn’t have any hand in developing and can’t necessarily deliver. Some of Letwin’s backers argued on Monday that May’s attempts to tightly control the Brexit agenda had forced their hand; Conservative MP Dominic Grieve said the house had been “prevented from doing its ordinary job” by the government’s “straitjacket.”

What will MPs be voting on?

We don’t know exactly what MPs will be considering on Wednesday, but the indicative votes will likely cover a circumscribed range of options for resolving Brexit, which could include:

• Another binding vote on the deal May negotiated with the E.U.
• A no-deal Brexit
• Asking the government to renegotiate the deal toward a specific outcome in mind, such as further changes to the Irish border backstop
• Scrapping May’s negotiated arrangement in favor of a softer Brexit involving a Canada- or Norway-style trade relationship with the E.U.
• A second referendum allowing the British public to decide what kind of Brexit they want, or if they would prefer to cancel Brexit entirely
• Revoking the U.K.’s withdrawal notice and canceling Brexit entirely

The first two options are unlikely to fare well, as Parliament has already decisively rejected May’s deal twice and refused to put it to a third vote, while MPs voted earlier this month to rule out leaving with no deal.

A vote in favor of a second referendum could be combined with one of the other options; for example, if Wednesday’s votes produce majorities for a Canada-style deal and for a second public vote, Parliament could call on the government to organize a referendum with the Canada option as one of the choices on the ballot.

This is just the sort of policy-making free-for-all May had hoped to avoid, even as she did such a poor job staving it off. In its response, the Brexit department also urged MPs to be realistic, stressing that “any options considered must be deliverable in negotiations with the E.U.” The statement also reminded Parliament that exercising one of these alternatives could require a longer “Brextension” than the brief reprieve Brussels has already granted.

What happens now?

Stay tuned. Parliament has not demonstrated the ability to build consensus around Brexit in the past two years, and there’s no reason to think that they’ll have more success in the next two days. The past several months of deliberation have given the strong impression that there is simply no majority to be found for any option. Wednesday’s indicative votes could easily turn out like 2003, with MPs rejecting everything; they might also produce the opposite problem, with majorities voting in favor of multiple, mutually exclusive solutions.

New Statesman columnist Stephen Bush lays out the problem succinctly: “The majority for indicative votes was reliant upon a host of MPs who have vowed not to block Brexit, and a host of MPs who have vowed to find any means to prevent it. Take away either and there is no majority for anything.” Indeed, the absence of a majority is one reason why, at this late hour, Parliament is giving itself the option to completely rewrite the plan for Brexit.

The other reason, of course, is that May has been exceedingly stubborn in attempting to ram through her deal, even though it never garnered any public or parliamentary enthusiasm, while stonewalling discussion of other possible options. If May has been right about one thing, however, it is that the deal she negotiated with the E.U. is the only deal the E.U. has agreed to.

After her European colleagues iced her out in Brussels last week and gave her only a two-week extension rather than the three months she asked for, it’s clear that Europe has lost its patience. If MPs end up telling May to go back to the E.U. and demand more delays just so they can argue some more, she might as well resign immediately, because that’s not happening. The headlines may say Parliament has “taken control” of Brexit, but when all is said and done, the E.U. itself will get to decide what the U.K. can or can’t get away with.

Brexit Guide: What’s Next After Parliament Seizes Control