As you might know on the night of 13th March at 19:00 British MPs voted on whether Britain would leave the EU without a deal. Needless to say, it was rejected. However, if the outcome of that vote is not legally binding and leaving the EU without a deal is still the default, what was the point?

Surely if it is not legally binding & still the default that therefore means if they decide to leave without a deal there is nothing that can be done about it - so why did they hold that vote in the first place?

  • 24
    Don't forget that the Brexit referendum itself wasn't legally binding either. Just because it's not legally binding doesn't mean that it's not going to be respected.
    – UKMonkey
    Mar 14, 2019 at 13:40
  • 1
    Someone from the EU, might have been Barnier, I can't remember, seems to have the same question. The quote was roughly that you can't just say you don't want "no deal", you need to agree to an actual deal.
    – Eric Nolan
    Mar 15, 2019 at 9:43
  • @EricNolan That's interesting - could you perhaps try and find a citation?
    – user25563
    Mar 15, 2019 at 9:59
  • 2
    @J.J I found this - "To take no deal off the table, it is not enough to vote against no deal – you have to agree to a deal." When I was looking for that I found similar statements all the way back to January. Source: - theguardian.com/politics/2019/mar/13/…
    – Eric Nolan
    Mar 15, 2019 at 10:23
  • @J.J I have suggested an edit to just remove the "or not" from the wording of the vote. The actual question was whether they would leave with no deal and this was rejected. Whether or not to leave isn't a yes or no question so it is unclear what rejected means. This might be clear to people who are following the issue but not to those who are just reading thsi without seeing a dozen news articles about it already this morning. :)
    – Eric Nolan
    Mar 15, 2019 at 10:28

5 Answers 5


so why did we hold that vote in the first place?

Mainly for the following two reasons:

For some, to put pressure on the government to ensure that there is either a deal or no Brexit

For others, so they can blame it all on the government even though they know full well they've done nothing to actually prevent it, by saying 'look, we voted against no deal'.

  • 1
    I think the Spelman amendment put pressure on the Government, but the original bill was brought by the Government, so it is difficult to see how that would have been a pressure move in the first place.
    – Jontia
    Mar 14, 2019 at 12:49
  • 3
    Hmm, but if two deals have already been rejected what the hell do they think more pressure will do? She cannot get anything through parliament so I don't see their logic. I guess that leaves one thing; no Brexit.
    – user25563
    Mar 14, 2019 at 12:50
  • 2
    @J.J the pressure is against the no deal; indeed, for many no Brexit would be the preferred outcome altogether, and for the rest they prefer no Brexit to no deal
    – user19831
    Mar 14, 2019 at 12:52
  • 11
    @J.J: The falacy, IMHO, is that the Tories keep interpreting, and referring to, the 2016 referendum as instructive and binding. Those who voted "Leave" in 2016 were a collection of wishes for "no deal" and "candyland deal" (lots of Brexit myths that have unraveled since then). Right now it looks like the options available are "no deal exit", or "no exit". I find it disingenuous to deny people a vote on these actual options. Candyland is no longer on the table, and people have wisened up on many things. I seriously don't think a second referendum would uphold Leave on these terms.
    – DevSolar
    Mar 14, 2019 at 13:44
  • 13
    @DevSolar one big issue with second referendum would be one of the main criticisms of the pro-EU brigade was the 'neverendum'. The mistake may have been to hold the referendum in the first place; now a second referendum could potentially have massive negative effects of its own.
    – user19831
    Mar 14, 2019 at 13:48

Trying to force though "the deal"

This is the main reason for this vote.

The prime minster is hemmed in and is trying to show that there is no other option but to accept "her deal", as already negotiated with the EU. She knows that there is not a majority for "no deal" in the parliament. So the vote is a way to show to everyone that the majority of parliament do not want a no deal, vis a ve parliament (or more to the point the pro-brexit MPs) should accept her deal. It's trying to prove to the MPs that say "we should leave without a deal" that they are in the minority.


This needs to be viewed in the context of what is currently happening. There are lots of factors at play here, some big ones include (not an exhaustive list or we'd be here all day):

  • The current government is a minority government without an overall majority in the house, it is only in power currently because of a loose arrangement with the DUP. This is so loose that the DUP has voted against the government several times! So the government, even if it could force ("whip") all of it's MPs to vote with it, still cannot make parliament accept the current deal on the table on its own.
  • The government has lost 2 major votes votes on its main policy ("Brexit"). Under normal circumstances this would cause the collapse of the government and a general election.
  • Earlier last year, the Prime Minister barely scrapped a no confidence vote. This has again highlighted that the government cannot produce a majority. Again, Under normal circumstances this would cause the collapse of the government and a general election.
  • The government tried increase its majority with its snap election of 2017. The idea being that if it had a larger majority it could better sideline the more extreme wings of the party (such as the ERG). This tactic failed miserably resulting in the Conservative party losing its majority. So the Conservative party really doesn't want an election because it's afraid it will lose it or it'll make matters even worse (again!).
  • The DUP could withdraw its support to the government; this would cause the collapse of the government and a general election. The DUP doesn't want an election though because it now has a lot of power. The DUP is a "Northen Ireland Unionist" party. It is usually a small player in wider UK politics but has a strong vested interest (obviously) in the border between northern and southern Ireland.

So at the moment the UK government is basically after something it can call a win in any shape or form, even if it's not binding at least it shows progress.

You can see form above just how tentative the current governments grip on power is. The current state of affairs is totally unprecedented. At any other time this government would have collapsed a long time ago or at the very least the prime minister would have resigned. Why has none of this happened? Because there simply isn't enough time to hold elections, etc. before 29th March.

The government never wanted to have this vote. It's been forced into by the circumstances. But without the government it's hard to make votes legally binding in the current circumstances. So the government is trapped by parliament and parliament is trapped by the government. Eventually (dear god hopefully soon!) one will have to give.

A vote cannot rule out Brexit, legally

The other thing here is that there is primary legislation(an act of parliament) that says the UK will leave the EU on the 29th March.

The only way to revoke this is with more primary legislation. This vote is not primary legislation. Revoking article 50 would require a new Act of Parliament. The EU has said the UK can revoke article 50 whenever it wants, the UK act of parliament says this isn't possible. This was only a vote on the original Brexit bill.

Unless a deal is agreed by the 29th March, then the legal default is no deal, no matter how many votes in parliament say that it's not true, the law says no.

  • 2
    Also the FTPA allows this situation to exist by not forcing a government that can't pass bills to collapse and hold fresh elections.
    – pjc50
    Mar 14, 2019 at 15:17
  • 6
    The UK can revoke A50 whenever it wants; it merely has to pass a single act to do so. That internal fighting is a barrier to making it happen isn't the EU's problem. The UK is the UK on this international stage, not its individual parties or even its individual politicians.
    – Nij
    Mar 15, 2019 at 8:26
  • 1
    "UK act of parliament says this isn't possible" this statement is incomplete. Isn't possible without <specific conditions>. Your statement makes it sound like it isn't possible at all, which is categorically untrue.
    – Jontia
    Mar 15, 2019 at 16:19
  • 1
    Would of collapsed? Sorry, I wandered in from English Language SE. But still. Mar 15, 2019 at 17:56
  • 2
    @JBentley The relevant Act is the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Section 1 repeals the European Communities Act 1972, which effects the withdrawal. That happens on "exit day" which Section 20 defines as 23:00 UK time on 29 March 2019 (ie, midnight Brussels time). As you say, the 1972 Act cannot be revoked by Royal Prerogative; the 2018 Act does that. Mar 16, 2019 at 8:21

This is old-fashioned power politics of a type rarely seen in the UK, normally associated with times of extreme crisis. Normally Parliament is irrelevant: the Government produces a policy, whips the MPs to vote for it, and it always passes.

Until 2010, there was a strong guarantee that ensured a way forward could always be found: the confidence vote. A vote could be declared a confidence vote so that voting it down would force fresh elections. The effect of that was that government MPs were extremely reluctant to vote against the government on a confidence vote given the high risk of losing their seats. Under this approach, either the deal would be approved or we would be having another election right now.

The Liberal Democrats broke that with the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

Now the government staggers on, having completely lost control of the process and being reduced to voting against its own motions. And yet May remains as PM, because who else is there? The Conservative Party failed to elect another leader. A no confidence vote was held in January and failed to remove the government. But at the same time there is no majority for doing anything specific. Achieving one will either (a) require the ERG and/or hard Brexit group and/or DUP to surrender (unlikely); (b) require enough of the Opposition to vote with the Government to back the deal (unlikely); (c) require May to give up on her Deal; or (d) require some other option to be assembled and members of the Government to break the whip to vote for it.

The votes are an opportunity for a coalition to assemble. If there's a majority for "not no deal", can that be turned into a deal / delay / rescind majority?

  • The FTPA has made no difference. Confidence votes can still be held, and losing one still forces a new election. The only difference is a two week delay between the loss of the confidence vote and the calling of the election, to give some time for a new government to be formed that has the confidence of Parliament (or for the existing government to regain it).
    – Mike Scott
    Mar 16, 2019 at 20:14
  • 1
    @MikeScott: The difference is that a confidence vote now must take a prescribed format. You can't simply point to a random piece of (hopefully important) legislation and say "That's a confidence motion" any more.
    – Kevin
    Mar 17, 2019 at 2:52
  • @Kevin Yes, but only the government could do that before, and it was never obliged to do so (except perhaps for passing the Budget). May could have made her deal a confidence issue to try to get it through, but she would have been ill-advised to do so and so probably wouldn’t.
    – Mike Scott
    Mar 17, 2019 at 6:09

The point of the votes on no deal and on an extension to the leaving date, is for Theresa May to pressure the Democratic Unionist Party (her 'confidence and supply' partners) and the European Research Group (hard Brexit conservatives) to vote for her deal.

  • 13
    Then she's really living in a candy land given that she is now 1st & 4th place for biggest defeats in parliament IIRC.
    – user25563
    Mar 14, 2019 at 12:49
  • 1
    @J.J Based on Tuesday night's defeat by 149, she needs to persuade 75 people to change their minds. It doesn't look likely Mar 14, 2019 at 12:53
  • 2
    at the current rate, she wins meaningful vote 4
    – Caleth
    Mar 14, 2019 at 12:54
  • 4
    @J.J: only because parliament has so far been able to be against everything, and for nothing. If they're faced with an actual choice between the deal and some specific alternative, they may yet choose the deal. Mar 14, 2019 at 13:39
  • 2
    @J.J Defeat implies that government(or May) lost something. I mean, if we look at it from the position that the UK Government doesn't want any of what the EU is offering(aka no useful movement) (and the media have created an environment in which) it seems as if the UK always needs to be the group offering solutions, the Government essentially doesn't have to do anything but stall for time until the EU makes the no-deal decision itself. In the meantime the EU/anti-Brexit camp has to build up 'the sense' that it's the UK's fault that it has a negotiating partner that is unwilling to negotiate.
    – Giu Piete
    Mar 14, 2019 at 18:04

Others have addressed the motivations, I'd like to explain how the UK Parliament works.

Normally only the government proposes legally binding votes. It is perfectly possible for other MPs to make legally binding amendments to government bills, but unless the government chooses to back them they are very rarely passed. So more often they are not binding and more of an advisory or statement of the will of parliament, which has a much greater chance of passing in the face of opposition from the government.

Non-binding motions are also much less damaging to the government if they are passed without its support, and MPs of the party of government tend not to want to damage their party for fear of losing power.

On Wednesday we saw a binding motion from Hilary Ben nearly pass, only failing by a mere 2 votes. The situation is precarious and Tory MPs don't want to bring the government down, while opposition MPs want to get their amendments passed by making them as palatable as possible to Tories by being non-binding. Even so, where there is apparent support, binding amendments are being put to the test.

You must log in to answer this question.