Soon to depart Theresa May still has hopes for her Brexit deal

Indicative votes process may offer the best and last prospect of breaking deadlock

British prime minister Theresa May is still hoping to win a majority for her deal – even if it comes at the price of her premiership. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty

British prime minister Theresa May is still hoping to win a majority for her deal – even if it comes at the price of her premiership. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty

 

As MPs prepare to vote on alternative options for Brexit on Wednesday, Theresa May is still hoping to win a majority for her deal – even if it comes at the price of her premiership. When she addresses the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers she is expected to outline a timetable for her departure following the ratification of the Brexit deal.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who once condemned the deal as “vassalage”, signalled on Tuesday that he is now prepared to vote for it rather than risk losing Brexit altogether. And at a Daily Telegraph event on Tuesday night, Boris Johnson suggested that he is moving towards the same conclusion.

These moves may have come too late to save the prime minister’s deal, however, and the DUP remain unwilling to support it without changes to the backstop. Although the DUP is a eurosceptic party that campaigned for Brexit in 2016, its commitment to leaving the EU is subordinate to its central objective of protecting Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

Unthreatening alternatives

From a unionist point of view, any alternative to May’s deal is unthreatening, apart from a no-deal Brexit, which parliament is unlikely to countenance. So the DUP can afford to allow the process of indicative votes to play out over the next two weeks before having to back any deal.

For Labour MPs in Leave-voting constituencies tempted to back the prime minister’s deal, the indicative votes offer an opportunity to back Brexit without angering party activists by voting with a Conservative government.

At 2pm on Wednesday, the speaker, John Bercow, will choose which options should be put to a vote by MPs, who will debate them for five hours. The selected proposals will then be put on a ballot paper and MPs will be asked to vote Aye or Noe to each of them, and they will be able to vote for as many of the proposals as they wish to support.

The results of the votes will be published – along with how each MP voted – at around 9pm on Wednesday and the house will return to the issue next Monday when time will be set aside to debate the options further. 

Sequential elimination

Conservative Oliver Letwin and Labour’s Hilary Benn, the backbenchers who are leading the process, have yet to determine how the options should be whittled down. One option is a process of sequential elimination, which has been dubbed Strictly Come Brexit. Another is to rank options in order of preference, perhaps using a version of single transferable voting.

In Brussels last week, the European Council said that Britain could extend its EU membership until May 22nd “in the event that the Withdrawal Agreement is approved by the House of Commons” by next Friday. Downing Street has not ruled a vote this week on the withdrawal agreement alone – leaving the political declaration until after the indicative votes – in order to qualify for that extension. 

Right now, the numbers don’t seem to add up for such a vote, for the prime minister’s deal or for any of the alternatives. The indicative votes process that starts on Wednesday may offer the best and last prospect of unlocking a cross-party majority to break the deadlock.

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