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How the UK Parliament will try to break the Brexit impasse

Members of Parliament took control of the Brexit process by agreeing to hold “indicative votes.”

Put It To The People March Takes Place In Central London
A sign at Saturday’s “People’s Vote” March on March 23, 2019, in London.
Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The British Parliament has taken control of the Brexit process.

Members of Parliament (MPs) approved a historic measure Monday that would allow them to hold so-called “indicative votes” this week, which will give Parliament a chance to decide on what type of Brexit could get the most support.

The measure passed 329 to 302, in yet another blow to British Prime Minister Theresa May’s authority. May opposed it, but more than two dozen members of her Conservative Party bucked her stance. At least three of May’s ministers resigned in protest and voted for the measure.

Parliament will now take over on Wednesday and hold “indicative votes” to try to overcome the Brexit impasse. The move comes less than a week after the European Union postponed the EU-UK divorce date from March 29 until at least April 12.

Indicative votes are nonbinding and are intended to give Parliament the opportunity to figure out which Brexit outcome might win a majority in the House of Commons.

MPs have defeated May’s Brexit deal twice, and though the prime minister is likely to try to bring it one more time, she apparently doesn’t yet have enough support to succeed on a third try.

Parliament has said it doesn’t want to leave the European Union without a deal — but unless it can come up with an entirely new plan, the UK will crash out of the EU on April 12 without any agreement, or exit amicably on May 22, if May’s plan manages to get through Parliament in the next week or so.

The EU also said it would consider a longer Brexit extension, provided the UK offers up a totally different Brexit strategy and agrees to participate in the European parliamentary elections in May.

That’s where these indicative votes come in; they’re intended to unlock the paralysis and maybe help Parliament and May’s government find a new approach.


What are indicative votes, and will they change anything?

Here’s how things are expected to go: MPs will put up a menu of Brexit options — a softer-style Brexit, such as membership in the EU customs union or single market; a second referendum; no deal; and so on. (The House speaker has chosen eight options.)

MPs will receive a ballot paper with all of these options on Wednesday, and they’ll be able to vote “yes” or “no” to each of them. MPs can vote for as many as they want, so it’s possible that more than one option will get a majority — but it’s also likely that some will get totally eliminated.

After they’ve narrowed down the list, Parliament will is another round to figure out the most popular option next week.

The hope is that at the end, Parliament will rally around one plan — and achieve a breakthrough on Brexit. Think of these indicative votes as a bit like the March Madness tournament — Wednesday’s vote is like the early rounds, with a lot of teams getting knocked out. Next week will be a bit more like the Final Four, with the goal of eventually deciding on the champion, or the winning Brexit strategy.

That’s if everything goes as planned, though. Parliament is divided, and has been throughout the Brexit process, so it’s not clear if anything will get a majority. Hardline Brexiteers desperately want to leave, and now. Remainers are seeking for a way to either reverse Brexit — through a second referendum, for example — or mitigate Brexit by seeking very close ties with the EU post-breakup. The rest of the MPs all exist somewhere in between.

But Monday marked a real turning point. Members of May’s party rebelled against the prime minister to support this measure and joined with Labour members to seize the agenda. Parliament failed to approve a similar indicative votes measure by just two votes during a marathon vote week earlier in March. Its win on Monday shows just how much May is losing her hold on her party, and her power.

A spokesperson for the government’s Brexit department expressed their displeasure in a statement after the vote, saying the amendment “upends the balance between our democratic institutions and sets a dangerous, unpredictable precedent for the future.”

“While it is now up to Parliament to set out next steps in respect of this amendment, the government will continue to call for realism — any options considered must be deliverable in negotiations with the EU,” the statement continued. “Parliament should take account of how long these negotiations would take, and if they’d require a longer extension, which would mean holding European parliamentary elections.”

May has lost some of her authority — but only up to a point. That’s because these indicative votes are nonbinding, so even if Parliament can rally around a brand new Brexit approach, the prime minister is not necessarily bound to honor the result.

May indicated as much ahead of the vote on Monday, saying that she was skeptical of the process and wouldn’t make any promises to act on the results of the indicative vote except to “engage constructively” with the outcome. Health secretary Matt Hancock echoed this on Tuesday, saying May’s government “can’t pre-commit to following whatever the Commons votes for because they might vote for something completely impractical.”

May also warned that just because Parliament agrees to something doesn’t mean the EU will go for it — although she left out the part where she tried multiple times to renegotiate her Brexit deal after the EU told her it was nonnegotiable.

She’s right that the EU would have to agree to such a change, though the EU is much more likely to accept a softer Brexit as long as the UK doesn’t request aggressive carve-outs.

But it’s not clear if May herself will get behind such a strategy, as it violates her Brexit “red lines” — essentially the UK’s starting point for negotiations — which included an end to its membership in the permanent customs union and the single market. And if she hasn’t budged yet, it’s doubtful she ever will.

Then again, she may not have a choice. The prime minister admitted Monday that she doesn’t have enough support to get her deal through Parliament right now — though she’s likely to try for a third vote. But it’s just not clear when: John Bercow, the House speaker, has continued to insist that May can’t bring back her plan for a third vote unless there are substantial changes.

Which means things are still unpredictable and chaotic. But what Parliament does on Wednesday may reveal whether a different Brexit solution is possible.