I doubt I am the only person that is frustrated and a bit perplexed by the current deadlock we are seeing in the UK parliament regarding Brexit. My question is: there appears to be a fairly well-defined list of possible options that are available:

  1. Accept the current deal being offered by the EU
  2. Continue to push and negotiate for a better deal (implying an extension to Article 50)
  3. Leave with no deal ("hard Brexit")
  4. Hold a second referendum and put the question back to the people
  5. Unilateral withdrawal of article 50

So, why can't parliament simply hold a vote on these options and go with whichever one gains the most votes (even if it is a plurality, rather than a majority)?

The deadlock seems to stem (at least in part) from the fact that each individual option requires the agreement of the majority to be put into effect, yet there is no majority agreement on any of the available options. So, why not break the deadlock by plurality?

Edit: Is there any procedural reason why such a plurality vote could not be held in the House of Commons?


6 Answers 6


Unfortunately for your idea, the core voting mechanism in Westminster (and the only one which is viewed as acceptable for legislation) requires a yes/no question and a binary vote. Indeed the voting actually occurs by travelling down corridors on either side of the debate lobby. Your options 1 and 4 require such a vote (for option one, a somewhat specific motion needs to pass to ratify the deal, while for option four several votes on the bill to create a second referendum would need to pass).

In principle options 2 or 3 could proceed through plurality if the House chose, since leaving with no deal is the default position if nothing else happens and since extending the date only requires there not to be a majority against such an action (and it's already known that there is majority in favour of requesting an extension).

In fact there have been several proposals to call a series of "indicative", non-binding votes along the lines of what you propose, which could conceivably form a consensus around the most popular option, but that still doesn't mean that an option the majority would vote down has much chance (excepting option 3 which could essentially happen by accident at this point.)

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    (excepting option 3 which could essentially happen by accident at this point.) Ironically, that is the only of the four options MPs could agree they don't want.
    – JJJ
    Mar 20, 2019 at 16:23
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    @JJJ At one point or other options 1 and option 4 have met that standard. Both rather heavily.
    – origimbo
    Mar 20, 2019 at 16:25
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    @JJJ is there a difference between voting that you do not want something and not voting that you do want it?
    – Time4Tea
    Mar 20, 2019 at 17:08
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    @Time4Tea In theory parliament can do anything except irrevocably binding the hands of a future parliament. In practice it's very unlikely a parliament would move to allow statute to be created by a minority of its members, due to the unfortunate precedent it would create.
    – origimbo
    Mar 20, 2019 at 17:26
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    @Time4Tea Note that matters of procedure are normally dealt with by changes to the Commons standing orders, not by legislation. The house can do this by a simple majority vote, and changes can be permanent or for a defined amount of time. The most common form of this is for specified standing orders to be suspended for a particular motion before the house. Mar 20, 2019 at 17:56

Plurality votes are notoriously open to manipulation. Let's say you are proposing something unpopular, such as a 10% tax increase. Only 40% of MPs support it.

In a plurality vote you can get the measure passed by creating two artificial alternatives - one leave taxes the same, and one to cut taxes by 10%. If half of those opposed to the measure vote each way, then the tax increase has the most votes and will pass.

No legislative assembly I am aware of uses plurality votes, at least partly for this reason.

  • 15
    Also, let's be clear THERE IS NO DEADLOCK. If nothing is passed then there is a very clear and perfectly simple way forward and it's a no-deal Brexit. Maybe not good, but clear and simple. Mar 20, 2019 at 21:02
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    I'm not sure it's correct to say no-deal would be imposed on MPs against their will. Invoking Article 50 involved accepting that unless a deal was agreed within two years, a no-deal Brexit would occur. This is what they agreed to. The fact that everyone is in denial about it now, and voting pointlessly against no deal instead of coming up with a workable actual plan doesn't change that
    – Mohirl
    Mar 21, 2019 at 13:07
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    You say that plurality votes can be manipulated by splitting one of the camps but that's just as true of binary votes. For example, the 1999 referendum in Australia asked "Should we become a republic in this specific way, or stay as a constitutional monarchy?" This led to some republicans voting for the status quo because they didn't like the specific kind of republic being offered (the president would have been appointed by parliament, rather than directly elected by the people). Mar 21, 2019 at 14:23
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    @DavidRicherby nod, but there is no way to implement "we will become a Republic in a non-specific way". You'll always end up with a specific Republic. This is exactly the Brexit problem; they voted "for Brexit" but refuse to vote for any specific Brexit.
    – Yakk
    Mar 21, 2019 at 15:40
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    @Yakk It would have been perfectly possible to have a straight up yes/no vote on becoming a republic, and then a second vote on exactly what kind of republic. Brexit is somewhat different, because the UK can't unilaterally choose how that is implemented. Mar 21, 2019 at 15:44

There is quite simply no mechanism in Parliament for a plurality vote among more than two options to exist. In order to have a plurality vote you would need to first pass a bill change to the Commons standing orders creating that mechanism, and the majority against the best predicted result would most like vote that bill down.

But even that might not work. The very next thing brought to vote might well be a binding vote to specifically cast down the result chosen from the plurality vote, and will have a majority backing that, so down it goes. There may or may not be procedures that would suffice to block this from coming to a vote, but blocking something with a known outcome from reaching the floor doesn't look like a democracy anymore.

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    @Time4Tea: My understanding of Parliamentary sovereignty is that it is utterly impossible for an act of Parliament to bind Parliament such that can't be undone with the very next binding vote.
    – Joshua
    Mar 20, 2019 at 20:47
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    @Time4Tea They may have conceded away some powers, but as this whole mess shows, not irrevocably. Mar 20, 2019 at 22:21
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    "There is quite simply no mechanism in Parliament for a plurality vote...In order to have a plurality vote you would need to first pass a bill". That's not true, for two reasons: (1) Matters of procedure are normally dealt with by changes to the Commons standing orders, not by legislation. Any changes can be permanent, for a limited time, or limited to a specific motion. (2) Other forms of voting are not alien to the House of Commons. In particular, the election of Speaker uses a form of exhaustive ballot. Mar 20, 2019 at 22:26
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    " blocking something with a known outcome from reaching the floor doesn't look like a democracy anymore." Welcome to the US Senate.
    – AShelly
    Mar 20, 2019 at 23:30
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    @Time4Tea No, parliament has not voted to give away its own sovereignty. The current deal would make it impossible for the UK to withdraw without breaking an international treaty. Parliament has sovereignty to choose to break treaties (although it very rarely does so). Mar 21, 2019 at 11:42

There is no reason why these options could not be put to Parliament in series.

The House of Commons works by having the government propose motions that can be passed or rejected. Motions are allocated time to be debated and other MPs can propose amendments. Finally a series of votes on the amendments and finally on the motion (amended or otherwise) are held.

The problem is that on all but one day a year only the government gets to decide which motions are going to be voted on. And the government is mostly controlled by the Prime Minister, and Mrs May only wants one outcome: her deal is accepted.

As such it's extremely difficult to get votes on the other options. The best hope is for amendments to be accepted supporting those options, but even then the Speaker of the House gets to decide which amendments will be put to the vote so it's not always automatically possible to have them attached to a government motion.

So it's entirely possible, just very unlikely due to Theresa May.

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    "on all but one day a year only the government gets to decide which motions are going to be voted on": that's not true; it's 20 days per session. Mar 20, 2019 at 17:58
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    Putting options in a series is exactly what the government was doing this last couple of weeks. Mar 20, 2019 at 20:01
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    @DJClayworth there were amendments to block things like a no-deal crash out, and a few in favour of certain things but they failed due to the way they were presented and whipping. What has been suggested is a series of free votes, non-binding but indicative.
    – user
    Mar 21, 2019 at 8:55
  • @DJClayworth Is it? As far as I can tell the government have only brought two options to the house: "this deal" (more than once) and "not no deal on March 29th". Backbench amendments have forced votes on some other options, but that's really not the same thing.
    – Chris H
    Mar 21, 2019 at 12:29

So, why not break the deadlock by plurality?

As of now, the British government is no longer in deadlock. There has already been a vote on all of the listed options except for option #5 and only the second option (asking for an extension) managed to receive more than 50% of the votes. Thus Theresa May asked for a three month delay on March 20th, currently pending approval by the European Council. Holding a plurality vote would be redundant as no other option had more than 50% of the MPs support.

In three months time (presuming the EU will grant the UK an extension), Parliament will again have to choose between the options, but this time asking for an extension would no longer be possible.

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    What you say is true. However, option 2 is only a temporary solution and will run out of steam eventually (a decision will have to be made). At that point, we will be back in this situation, with option 2 no longer on the list.
    – Time4Tea
    Mar 20, 2019 at 18:15
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    Isn't the extension just pushing the problem forward? It's not like extending solves the issues at hand, if anything it adds problems when it conflicts with the EU elections. Indeed, the UK will still need to make a plan for what they will do during that extension..
    – JJJ
    Mar 20, 2019 at 18:15
  • @JJJ it is pushing the problem forward, however its technically a way out of the deadlock. In three months time the Parliament will have to choose between the remaining 4 options. Mar 20, 2019 at 18:18
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    The EU replied that it won't approve an extension without a deal being approved in Westminster: bbc.com/news/uk-politics-47636011 So there won't be any no-deal extensions, in all likelihood. Mar 20, 2019 at 18:28
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    The reason that the OP is suggesting a plurality vote (where something can pass without a majority) is because no course of action has support of a majority. However as others have pointed out, plurality vote has its problems too. This is what Ranked Choice (instant runoff) voting was designed for. But that’s unlikely to happen either.
    – Alex
    Mar 20, 2019 at 22:48

Let's say the government proposes this and this vote is carried out. Then a majority of MPs are getting something they don't want (otherwise that outcome could be passed as a normal vote by simple majority). In particular, the government may get an outcome it doesn't want, the majority of parliament doesn't want but would have to carry it out (well, that would be part of the earlier proposition of this system, otherwise the vote would be meaningless). This isn't ideal.

Aside from that, those options aren't a one-time thing. These actions have consequences and once you choose an option, you have to follow through:

  1. For example, if you accept the current deal, many laws will have to be passed (which requires a majority, again).

  2. If they decide to keep on negotiating the impasse isn't broken, they will just have one more option if a new deal is negotiated, but there may be no majority for that one either.

  3. Leaving without a deal is like opening Pandora's box, it's not something that solves all existing problems, instead many more choices (e.g. what will be the policy on allowing EU citizens coming to the UK? How are goods coming in checked?) will have to be made and that requires a majority in parliament to do so.

  4. A second referendum also doesn't help if there is no majority in favour of it. In the proposed plurality vote, do MPs commit to respecting the outcome? Even if that means disrespecting the current referendum outcome? If the outcome is to leave without a deal, what instructions does that give the parliament / government with regards to the previous point?

All in all, it's not that easy. And if MPs do decide they want to work together to get a certain outcome, they can just do that. They wouldn't need the plurality vote. For example, the leaders over the parties could meet, decide an outcome, whip their MPs and don't care about a few people not voting with their decision. Obviously, the problem is that the parties aren't willing to compromise in such a controlled setting, they're not going to allow a vote (for which they don't really know the outcome) and then magically decide to respect that.

  • I see what you are saying; however, the more possible options there are available in a given situation, the smaller the chance will be of finding a majority agreement on any particular one (because the vote is being split more and more). In that case, to me, a system that relies on a majority vote seems a little inappropriate. Is there anything in UK Parliament procedure that would prevent such a plurality vote being held, in principle?
    – Time4Tea
    Mar 20, 2019 at 16:17
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    @Time4Tea I am not that familiar with the system, but I think they could agree to hold the vote and agree* to uphold the outcome. The problem is, parliamentarians won't be likely to do that. *I'm not sure to what extent they can agree, I think there's no problem with just agreeing, but it's probably difficult to make that agreement binding by law (though that might be a different question).
    – JJJ
    Mar 20, 2019 at 16:22
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    @Time4Tea normally there's no problem with not having a majority to do anything; the status quo prevails and nothing changes. Belgium managed without a government at all for about 500 days a few years ago. However, there was a majority for Article 50 two years ago. That gets us here. Like parking your car on a railway crossing, doing nothing does not mean status quo, it means getting hit by a train.
    – pjc50
    Mar 20, 2019 at 17:11
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    @Time4Tea In any system which purports to be a democracy, you can't fix problems by making one-off changes to the rules. If it is clear that elected representatives don't actually "represent" anything beyond whatever they feel like doing on an ad hoc basis, that is a bigger political problem than a disorderly exit from the EU.
    – alephzero
    Mar 20, 2019 at 18:09
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    @alephzero why not, if a majority of representatives are willing to support such a one-off, exceptional deviation? That would seem fairly democratic to me.
    – Time4Tea
    Mar 20, 2019 at 18:12

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