What are indicative votes and how would they work?

All the talk in Westminster is about indicative votes on Brexit.

But what are they, and how would they work?

– What is an indicative vote?

An indicative vote is an opportunity for MPs to vote on a series of options in a particular situation to establish whether any of them can command a majority in the House of Commons. As an expression of the House’s will, it is not necessarily binding on the Government.

– Who is proposing it?

A cross-party group of MPs, led by Conservative former ministers Sir Oliver Letwin and Dominic Grieve and Labour’s Hilary Benn, are seeking to use a vote on Monday evening to seize control of the parliamentary agenda on Wednesday so a series of votes can be held then.

General Election 2015 aftermath – May 11th
General Election 2015 aftermath – May 11th

– Who is backing it?

The Letwin amendment has been signed by 109 MPs from all sides of the House, including Conservatives Nick Boles and Sir Nicholas Soames, Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Jack Dromey, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford and several members of the breakaway Independent Group. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said his party will support it.

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn

– Why does the Prime Minister oppose it?

Theresa May has warned that allowing Parliament to take control of the Commons agenda, which is normally determined by the Government, would set an “unwelcome” constitutional precedent. If MPs reject the Letwin plan, she has promised to provide Government time for a similar procedure led by ministers. But she said she is “sceptical” about the process and will not be bound by its outcome, which she warned could produce “contradictory outcomes or no outcome at all”.

– What might MPs vote on?

There is no list of options yet, but they could include the Prime Minister’s deal; no deal; a Canada-style free trade agreement; Labour’s plan for a customs union and close alignment with the single market; the so-called Common Market 2.0 proposals; a Norway-style close partnership with the EU; revoking Article 50 to maintain EU membership; or a referendum on any of these possible outcomes.

– And which is most likely to win?

So far, Mrs May has secured no more than 242 out of a possible 650 votes for her deal, and she admitted on Monday she cannot guarantee a majority for it. A “softer” Brexit involving participation in the customs union or single market may come closer to commanding the support of more than half of MPs, but it is not thought likely that either no deal or no Brexit would come out on top.


– Is there certain to be a winning option?

This would depend on the voting system. If MPs were asked to vote Aye or No on each proposal in turn, there is every possibility that all of them would be rejected. However, Mrs May’s effective deputy David Lidington is understood to have floated the possibility of using a different system which would guarantee a result. This could involve an alternative vote, under which MPs would number options in order of preference, with votes redistributed as the least popular are eliminated, or exhaustive votes, with MPs taking part in a series of rounds of voting as defeated options are removed one-by-one from the list.

– Has this ever been done before?

It is a very rare parliamentary procedure. In 2003, MPs voted on seven options for reform of the House of Lords and rejected every one of them, with the result that proposals for a partially or fully elected second chamber ran into the sand and have never been revived.

– Why haven’t MPs voted on these things yet?

The only real opportunities to vote on alternative Brexit options in the Commons have come in amendments to Mrs May’s “meaningful votes” on her Withdrawal Agreement and motions following its defeat. This process has seen MPs reject options including a no-deal Brexit, a second referendum, the Labour plan and the revocation of Article 50. However, in a tribal Commons, many MPs are reluctant to back a proposal tabled by their opponents. It is far from certain the results would be repeated in an indicative vote.