Backbenchers took charge of the Brexit impasse in parliament again tonight as the cabinet abstained from voting in indicative votes they tried in vain to stop.
This time they came closer than ever to breakthrough with a majority of MPs narrowly failing to coalesce around one was forward for Brexit.
In a dramatic and historic night in parliament, Ken Clarke said politics dictated that the motions should be put together after his motion was defeated by just three votes. The Conservative Father of the House said MPs had pinned their colours to one motion and not another when the motions could have been incorporated to achieve a consensus.
Clarke’s motion for a Brexit compromise where membership of the customs union would continue was defeated by just three votes, and a motion to put any Brexit deal to a confirmatory public vote for the final say was defeated by just 12 votes.
Tory MP Nick Boles dramatically resigned his Conservative whip after the results were read out, saying he was disgusted at how his party had blocked a way forward to be found in parliament.
Jeremy Corbyn said: “the margin of defeat for one of the options tonight was very narrow indeed, and the margin of defeat for the Prime Minister has been massive three times, and if it is good enough for the Prime Minister to consider her deal three times, then may I suggest the House should be given a chance again on Wednesday so the House can succeed where the Prime Minister has failed.”
The Government were earlier defeated in their attempt to block the votes today 322 to 277, with a majority of 45, in a telling show of May’s waning power over the House of Commons.
The European Parliament’s Brexit Co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt reacted warning: “The House of Commons again votes against all options. A hard Brexit becomes nearly inevitable. On Wednesday, the U.K. has a last chance to break the deadlock or face the abyss.”
Indicative votes are not binding on the government and Theresa May has spelt that out. Though she admitted last week that we are reaching the limits of the process in parliament.
But indicative votes are a way of breaking the Brexit deadlock by finding a way forward that the majority of MPs would support.
MPs took control of the Brexit process last week amid more resignations for the Prime Minister when the Commons Speaker allowed them control over motions tabled before parliament.
In last week’s indicative vote on March 27, none of the eight votes got a full majority either, but neither did the PM’s ‘meaningful vote’ on her withdrawal deal.
House of Commons speaker John Bercow decided which MPs would be able to vote on today, whittling down the options to four.
What were the motions in tonight’s indicative votes?
Motion C: customs union
Proposed by Conservative MP Ken Clarke
This proposes the UK government negotiates as a minimum “a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU” as part of any Brexit deal.
Last week this option proved much more popular than the government’s withdrawal deal with the EU, just six votes short of a majority. This arrangement would avoid the headache of tearing up the Northern Ireland peace agreement by keeping the UK within the close trading arrangements of the Custom Union. It would provide certainty for UK and EU businesses, but is unpopular with hard Brexiteers as they still insist that Britain would be free to find better trading deals outside the customs union. However the trade deals secured by Liam Fox over the past two years would suggest otherwise.
MPs voted against this option by 271 to 265 last week.
This week MPs were even more narrowly defeated, voting 273 to 276.
Motion D: common market 2.0
Proposed by Conservative MPs Nick Boles, Robert Halfon and Dame Caroline Spelman, as well as Labour MPs Stephen Kinnock and Lucy Powell and SNP MP Stewart Hosie.
This proposes the UK joins the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and European Economic Area (EEA), with countries such as Norway.
This would mean the UK enjoys the trading privileges of being part of the EU single market, with which would come freedom of movement for people – as well as goods and services. Until a trade deal with the EU could be negotiated that guaranteed no hard border across Ireland, the UK would still be part of a “comprehensive customs arrangement” with the EU, with a say over future EU deals.
On March 27, 188 MPs voted for this, 283 voted against.
This week MP’s voted 261 to 282 against the proposition.
Motion E: confirmatory public vote
Proposed by Labour MPs Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson
This motion now has the support of the Labour Party leadership. Kier Starmer said that the party supported the other three motions, but not Motion G, which he called a “fall-back option” if the other options did not work out, as “we are not at that stage yet.”
This proposes that any Brexit deal passed by parliament should be put before the public, so the people can have the final say on it.
This proved the most popular option last week among MPs, with 268 MPs voted for, 295 against.
This week the motion was defeated narrowly, 280 to 292.
Motion G: parliamentary supremacy
Proposed by SNP MP Joanna Cherry Grieve
This new option proposes the government asks for an extension to the Brexit process. If this is not possible then parliament chooses between the options of no deal or revoking article 50.
After this, there would be a national inquiry to determine what kind of relationship with the EU the majority of the UK public want.
191 MPs voted for, 292 against tonight.