The indicative votes are the right question at the wrong time
Unless a WA is agreed, they could all be pointless
Brexit means Brexit, Theresa May once said. Even at the time, the slogan was widely derided as meaningless and nebulous – though politically, there’s value in something that’s all things to all people. Indeed, Labour is engaging in an almost identical exercise at the moment, where almost nothing is ruled out but very little is explicitly ruled in: everything remains on the table, presumably in the hope that someone else will make the decision and so avoid Labour landing with any of the blame.
As an opposition, that might just about be a viable strategy, if a pretty craven one. The more fervent supporters of one outcome or another will be upset, especially those who want to Remain via a second referendum (which was briefly Labour’s official policy, though no longer, apparently), but the majority of the blame will be aimed at the government.
Which is fair enough. Governments are meant to develop and deliver policy, and “Brexit means Brexit” isn’t and never was a policy, any more than the ‘Leave’ instruction on the 2016 ballot paper was. By the time the government finally got round to fleshing out and pinning down the details – the Chequers away-day – the concept settled on was already unpopular and the PM was already set on her self-imposed tramlines.
In reality, the indicative votes now (probably) being scheduled for next week should have formed part of a national debate held shortly after the referendum result, which could have both informed policy development and produced deeper and wider ownership of that policy. At the latest, the discussions should have happened after the botched 2017 election, when the Tories lost their majority and it was clear that parliament was going to have a very major say in how Brexit developed.
Unfortunately, to have apparently contracted-out Brexit policy to parliament as a whole, at a time of her own maximum personal vulnerability would probably have been a provocation to her MPs too far. It’s the sort of thing that PMs in complete command of the situation can do. May was not in such a position in June 2017 (which is one reason, among many, that she should have been replaced at that point).
However, having missed that opportunity, the Commons is in danger of making the opposite mistake now. What would, two years ago, have been strategic thinking is now – with only three weeks to the next cliff edge – a dangerous distraction.
The reality is that there are only three meaningful short-term Brexit options at this stage: the Withdrawal Agreement as agreed, Revoke, and No Deal. Everything else is either process (e.g. referendums, changes of government, general elections etc), or else a matter for the Future Relationship. There is neither the time nor the political space to develop an alternative withdrawal framework. Nor is it necessary to do so.
What does need to be decided is whether Britain should leave at all, and if so, whether it should leave without a deal. Some will argue that this dismisses the idea of a second referendum. Indeed it does, and for good reason. We have spent 33 months since the last referendum going nowhere for lack of a majority view, never mind a consensus. Even if a referendum could produce a useful mandate – itself far from certain – simply agreeing the terms for a vote will be far harder and more contentious than is being given credit for; probably so hard as to make it doubtful as to whether it’s achievable under an A50 extension.
Instead, if the decision of the House is to remain, it needs to take that decision itself. Similarly, if it is to leave, then it either needs to pass the Withdrawal Agreement or decide to leave without a deal. The fact that the Commons doesn’t want to do any of these things is precisely the reason we’ve ended up where we are. Granted, it’s not a very good deal but it’s all there is and, in truth, given the parliamentary maths and the positions adopted by the EU, it’s probably close to all there could be. While it’s easy for MPs and others to blame May, and for May to blame MPs, the fact is that both have run down the clock. May has done so as a deliberate political tactic but the Commons has equally failed to support any practical alternative via an amendment.
The time for that prevarication is now past. The minimal extension means that No Deal by accident remains a very real possibility, for want of an alternative. Indeed, the fact that there has been an extension and there will be indicative votes is likely to rob parliament of the sense of urgency it very much should have.
Instead, assuming that the Commons does want to leave and doesn’t want No Deal, it should pass the Withdrawal Agreement, either with conditions attached as to the future relationship, or with the intent of holding a wide-ranging debate immediately after Exit on the strategy for Phase 2. For the Conservatives, that should also involve a leadership election (which admittedly also brings the risk of unicorn-hunting but less critically so than if the contest is before Brexit takes place).
Will it? I’m doubtful. Labour MPs, including the leadership, still seem primarily interested in avoiding contact with the process, whether out of fear of Remainers or Labour tribalists determined not to back any ‘Tory’ measure (even if it had been amended as Labour want). With enough ERG Ultras plus the DUP to bring the government’s support way below 320, that means there simply aren’t the votes there. Engaging in displacement activity doesn’t change that, and nor can the can be kicked again (or not much – the EU doesn’t lose anything from postponing again at April 12 but we’re talking weeks only).
To my mind, betting markets, parliamentarians and commentators alike are underrating the risk of No Deal. If it is to be stopped, it has to be stopped. At the moment, there aren’t enough people willing to do so.