Written by Thomas Eason
Political turmoil has become something of a feature in British politics since the Brexit referendum. Time and time again Prime Minister Theresa May has faced down calls for her resignation and speculation about her suitability for office. Yesterday, the Prime Minister presented her draft Brexit deal to Parliament, creating a major political backlash that appears to present her greatest leadership challenge yet. After a gruelling few hours answering questions in Parliament about the Brexit deal, it’s clear she is unlikely to get her way in the Commons. In this chaotic context, there has been speculation over whether May will give her MPs a free vote – a vote in which MPs are allowed to vote without instruction from party managers. In this blog I explore how a free vote could impact May’s future as PM and argue that it might just be a much needed lifeline for the Prime Minister.
On the face of it, giving MPs a free vote on the Brexit deal would be an odd strategy. In yesterday’s press conference the PM appeared to tie herself to the draft Brexit deal and committed herself to getting it through Parliament, stating she was determined to “see this through”. The likelihood that she can succeed at this, however, seems minimal. As a result of the 2017 General Election, May is leading a minority government, relying on votes from the DUP to secure her position. Unfortunately for May, her Brexit deal appears to have more opposition than support. Labour have announced that they will be voting against the deal (although how strong their whip will be is unclear); the DUP appear to be in opposition; and, reflective of her wider party, May’s own Cabinet appear to be split. On this basis, a free vote looks almost certain to kill the Brexit deal, so why would the PM pursue this option?
The answer, I suggest, is that a free vote has the potential to keep the PM in post. In the precarious position that she is in, it looks unlikely May can survive another raft of resignations followed by an almost inevitable Commons defeat. If she pushes on with a whipped vote, that is exactly the scenario that she will face. However, a free vote could help her avoid this precarious position.
Looking first at resignations, reports currently suggest there are a number of MPs on the Government’s payroll that are unhappy with May’s Brexit deal. This includes names such as Fox, Hunt, Williamson, Javid, Grayling and Leadsom. If the vote is whipped, these MPs will be expected to toe the party line or resign. The potential for May to suffer another round of resignations just before Parliament votes on the draft deal is thus a very real possibility, inevitably bringing with it questions about her competence, leadership, and wider support. A free vote, however, could prevent this from happening. By allowing MPs to vote freely, she removes the expectation that MPs on the payroll need to resign, saving her both time and face. Inevitably, she would still receive criticism about Ministers voting against her deal, however, she will have saved herself from having to push through another wave of resignations and the threat of an empty Cabinet.
Turning now to how a free vote could help May survive a seemingly inevitable Commons defeat, there is precedent for free votes helping Prime Ministers secure much needed support. In 1971 Edward Heath successfully used a free vote to attract Labour rebels. This, however, was a very different situation to today. Labour MPs that currently oppose the deal are unlikely to support the PM simply because there is no Conservative whip. On that basis, a free vote looks set to lose Conservative votes for no tactical advantage. This analysis, however, is very narrow.
Looking beyond simply trying to win the unwinnable and instead turning towards the PM’s survival, a free vote could take some of the wind out of the sails of critics and will give May more room to manoeuvre herself politically. The PM has tied herself to the draft deal and, if she were to lose a whipped vote, she will inevitably face criticism about her ability to command the confidence of the House. A free vote will allow her to get around this by removing her critics ability to claim the vote was a confidence issue. It will also allow her to distance herself from the deal by spinning the situation as an “I have given MPs the opportunity to express their views, I have heard those views, and will act accordingly” moment. Ultimately, should May get this far, a free vote will have given her the perfect excuse to drop the doomed deal without having to resign or be mocked as “Theresa the appeaser”. Should that happen, the options of an election, a second referendum, a no deal, or a possible renegotiation will all be open to her, each option inevitably bringing with it a new bout of criticism and political challenge.
Whatever occurs over the coming weeks, May’s future as PM looks uncertain. There is no guarantee that a free vote will happen, that it will be enough to save her, or that she will even make it that far. However, if there is one thing we have learnt about May these last few years, it’s that she’s driven enough to survive incredible opposition and personal criticism. Should she make it to the Commons vote, I suggest a free vote on her Brexit deal could well be the best means for her to remain in post.
Thomas Eason is a doctoral researcher in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His research interests include Foreign Policy Analysis, British foreign policy, and the decision to invade Iraq. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he regularly tweets @ThomasEason_