British lawmakers are preparing to take control of the House of Commons agenda for two days in an unprecedented move that will test support for alternatives to Prime Minister Theresa May’s deadlocked Brexit plan.
A landmark vote placed Wednesday’s parliamentary timetable in the hands of lawmakers, after May’s repeated failure to pass her deal raised the chances of Britain crashing out of the EU in chaos. MPs now plan to add a second day of debate on Monday.
A motion published by the Labour MP Hilary Benn, one of the MPs leading the charge to seize control of the Brexit process, disclosed that lawmakers will vote simultaneously on a menu of options on Wednesday evening local time. These so-called indicative votes will reveal which of the various alternatives command the most support.
Then, on Monday, MPs will vote on Brexit options in sequence – creating, in effect, a run-off.
The government opposes the move, and has insisted it still intends to bring May’s twice-rejected deal back for a vote in the next few days. The European Union, when it agreed an extension to the Brexit process last Friday, said the UK could leave on May 22 if it passed the deal by the end of this week. Otherwise, the UK has until April 12 to present an alternative plan, or risk crashing out without a deal.
It seems likely that lawmakers will favor a closer relationship with the European Union than May anticipated in her withdrawal agreement. That prospect of a “softer” Brexit prompted some leading opponents of May’s deal to switch sides, including prominent euroskeptic Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the the European Research Group, a hardline bloc of pro-Brexit Conservative MPs.
“I have always thought that no-deal is better than Mrs May’s deal, but Mrs May’s deal is better than not leaving at all,” Rees-Mog said on a podcast Tuesday.
In spite of the turnaround, May still lacks the numbers needed for her deal to pass. She needs to convince 75 MPs to back a third vote on the widely maligned deal if she is to win by one.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props May minority government, has shown no sign of coming round.
But some of May’s supporters remain optimistic. Conservative lawmaker Andrew Murrison, who has twice supported the deal in the Commons, told CNN there is a chance the DUP’s 10 MPs might flip.
The DUP’s Brexit spokesperson, Sammy Wilson, remained implacably opposed on Tuesday, instead calling for a one-year extension to the Brexit process. That would be “a better strategy than volunteering to be locked into the prison of the withdrawal deal,” he said.
Speculation over May’s future
The government has said it will not be bound by the results of the indicative votes. “It’s incumbent on the government to listen to what the Commons says,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC Radio 4. “But we can’t pre-commit to following whatever they vote for, because they might vote for something that is completely impractical,” he added.
Prior to the votes, May will meet with the influential 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, which has lead to speculation that she will set a timetable for her resignation.
But Alistair Burt, who resigned as a Foreign Office minister in order to vote against May’s government on Monday, told CNN she should not resign, despite failing twice to pass her withdrawal agreement.
“Changing leaders at this time would not be helpful,” said Burt, a member of May’s Conservative Party who supported the motion to hold indicative votes on Wednesday.
Burt added that “of course” he regretted resigning. “But occasionally there are higher principles that you’ve got to stick to.”