MPs voted for a soft Brexit and a second referendum in significant numbers on Wednesday, but no single option for leaving the EU secured majority support in the House of Commons.
A cross-party group of backbench MPs succeeded in taking control of the Commons agenda and organising a series of so-called indicative votes on alternative plans to Theresa May’s Brexit deal after it was emphatically rejected twice.
Most of the plans were put forward by backbenchers, in an effort to forge a consensus on a different option to the prime minister’s deal.
The most popular plan was a referendum on any withdrawal deal, proposed by Labour’s Margaret Beckett. It won 268 votes in favour, with 295 against.
A proposal by Conservative Ken Clarke for a customs union with the EU secured 264 votes in favour, with 272 against.
Both plans were supported by the Labour party, and the proposals won more backing than Mrs May’s deal secured in a so-called meaningful vote this month.
Common Market 2.0 — a proposal for membership of the EU single market and customs union, also known as Norway-plus — secured 188 votes, with 283 against. Critics had said it would leave the UK as a “rule-taker”, with only limited control over immigration.
The indicative votes initiative, led by the Conservative Oliver Letwin, will now focus on a smaller number of options on Monday if Mrs May’s deal has not been approved by MPs by then. Sir Oliver said he hoped the Commons would back the deal in the meantime.
MPs had taken control of the Commons timetable on Wednesday afternoon, allowing the indicative votes to take place later in the evening.
It was a constitutionally significant moment, given that the government usually determines what is debated in parliament.
MPs had put forward a total of 16 alternative plans to Mrs May’s deal on Tuesday evening, from a no-deal Brexit to staying in the EU.
John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, selected eight of them for debate and voting on Wednesday. The government did not propose Mrs May’s deal.
The 28 members of the cabinet were told to abstain in the indicative votes. Other Tory MPs were given free votes.
“I am off the leash,” said one junior member of the government, who had planned to resign if the votes were whipped.
Labour did whip its MPs in favour of its Brexit plan, as well as a customs union, and a second referendum.
It also “encouraged support” for Common Market 2.0. Labour’s backing for a second referendum, which has been deeply divisive in the party, appeared to hinge on the fact that the plan did not specify that Remain would be an option on the ballot paper.
Nonetheless, Melanie Onn, a shadow minister who represents the Leave-voting seat of Great Grimsby, resigned in protest.
Labour’s Brexit plan, for a permanent customs union with the EU and a “strong relationship” with the bloc’s single market, received 237 votes in favour, and 307 against.
A no-deal Brexit plan, put forward by Eurosceptic Conservative John Baron, received 160 votes in favour, and 400 against. MPs have twice rejected no-deal in previous votes.
A total of 184 MPs voted for Scottish National party MP Joanna Cherry’s plan to revoke Article 50, thereby stopping Brexit, if the only alternative was no-deal. However, 293 voted against.
Neither the customs union proposal nor the second referendum proposal amounted to a full Brexit plan: the former just said that “at a minimum” a deal should include a customs union, while the latter did not specify what option would be put to a public vote.