The House of Commons will today vote on a series of indicative votes, in order to find out "the will of the house", and thus break the current deadlock with Brexit. These votes come after the deal that Theresa May negotiated privately with the EU was rejected twice by the House of Commons.

The question is, why didn't Theresa May consult the "will of the house" two years ago (i.e. before starting negotiations with the EU), given that any deal had to be ratified by parliament anyway? Why did she choose to go solo and define herself (not even her party) the UK red lines and what Leave was supposed to mean?

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    This question assumes something that's not necessarily in evidence. It kind of assumes that the deal would be entirely defined by what the UK wants, as if the EU's wants either don't exist or would be subservient to the UK's wants. The deal was negotiated between two parties, and therefore reflects what the two parties could agree to, not what either party wants. Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 14:56
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    I'm saying that you're assuming that Parliament was not consulted, and the only evidence you offer of that is that Parliament rejected the EU deal. The PM didn't make Parliament vote on a negotiating position, but that's a far cry from saying that she didn't consult Parliament at all. So are you asking why she didn't make them vote on a negotiating position, or can you provide evidence that she didn't consult Parliament at all? Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 15:02
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    Then please clarify your question that you're asking specifically about making Parliament vote on something. Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 15:04
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    Related: politics.stackexchange.com/q/37152/130
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 11:57
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    Have you ever tried to manage any reasonably sized group of people and gotten them to make a decision? Try and getting five people to agree on where to eat dinner. Now assume that these people inherently have opposing agendas and are in a tug of war over where you end up eating. Oh, and they debate for a living. Oh, and there's 650 of them. I wouldn't want to organize a dinner with 650 people's opinions in tow, even if it were a full time job for me, and that choice is considerably less complex than Brexit.
    – Flater
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 15:51

5 Answers 5


After the referendum there was no requirement to consult Parliament on any deal, the government could have simply agreed it with the EU and presented it as the only option on the table - take it or leave with no deal. Given that most MPs are strongly against a no-deal exit, it would likely have passed due to them having no other choice.

However, thanks to legal action by Gina Miller the government was forced to promise giving Parliament a "meaningful vote" on the final deal. In December 2017 it was written into law.

By that point the negotiations had already started and were going very badly. May had set out her "red lines", things she would not compromise on but which the EU had pointed out made the kind of deal she was seeking impossible. The problem was exacerbated by her failure to specify precisely what she wanted (the infamous "brexit means brexit" meaningless mantra), which seemed like an effort to delay giving her MPs any substance to argue over.

So basically by the time she was forced to consult with Parliament instead of just ramming the deal through, it was already too late to do so without tearing the Tory Party apart and staring a prolonged debate during what was supposed to be a negotiation focusing on the detail of the withdrawal.

Her plan thus became to leave everything to the last possible moment, in the hope denying Parliament any real choice again.

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    Thanks. Can you clarify what changed after the legal action by Gina Miller? You state in your first paragraph: "he government could have simply agreed it with the EU and presented it as the only option on the table - take it or leave with no deal." That sounds no different than the meaningful vote twice rejected.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 16:37
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    @luchonacho the term "meaningful vote" is taken to mean that some other acceptable option must be possible, because a vote between political suicide and the deal isn't a meaningful choice.
    – user
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 17:18
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    @luchonacho. Theresa May did not think she had to consult Parliament at all. She believed she could negotiate and ratify an agreement since the referendum gave her all the mandate she needed. Once Parliament's approval was needed she was stuck since some MPs want a business-friendly hard Brexit, some want a business-friendly soft Brexit, some want a worker-friendly hard Brexit and some want a worker-friendly hard Brexit. It is unclear if there is a majority for any of these alternatives. Please don't ask what soft and hard Brexit mean since they have not been agreed yet. Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 19:02
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    Other issues are the Ireland/Northern Ireland and the Spanish/Gibraltar borders. I do not think many English voters appreciated the importance of these borders in 2016. Certainly, few understood they would become the killer issues they are. We have no solution for these border problems and little idea what a solution might look like. The current deal is that we stay in the EU as paying, rule obeying but non-voting members until solutions are identified. If you are an MP seeking re-election, how will you justify that to your leave-voting electors? Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 19:11
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    Can you ellaborate on why May didn't try to work with parliament after the requirement for a meaningful vote was established? Surely at that point she would have known that she would need some opposition support for her deal. Was this a case of not wanting to backpedal and appear weak, or was she just optimistic that parliament would accept whatever deal was offered?
    – Richard
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 11:59

Perhaps one thing you may be forgetting is that, when the Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU started, the Conservative Party had a healthy majority in the house of commons. Therefore, there was some level of confidence in the UK Government that, as long as they could negotiate a deal with the EU that was acceptable to the Tory Party, they would be able to use their majority to get it through Parliament.

However, in 2017, Theresa May made the (in hindsight, unwise) decision to call a general election. At the time, she was confident that it would boost the Tory Party's majority; however, the result was the exact opposite - the Tory party lost seats and lost their majority (even though no other party gained a majority either, i.e. it was a hung parliament).

As a result of that general election/hung parliament, the balance of power in the UK Parliament shifted. Now the Tory Party lacks a majority and requires the support of the Northern Irish DUP in order to get any legislation through. So, the outcome of this disastrous (from the Tory point-of-view) election has given Parliament considerably more power over Brexit than they had at the time the negotiations began.

In summary: the political situation has changed.

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    This a decent answer, but since the June 2017 election a lot of time has passed. So still, why not call indicative votes during all this time? You haven't quite answered that. Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 16:06
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    Thing is she lost so badly in the vote on her deal even if every extra member of her former majority voted for it she would still have lost.
    – user
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 16:08
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    @user a fair point, although she didn't know that until the votes were held. With a healthy majority, she may have believed she could just push it through.
    – Time4Tea
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 18:14
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    @Fizz it's a good question. It seems part of her strategy since then has been to try to run down the clock and force Parliament into having to choose between her deal or no deal, as user says in their answer.
    – Time4Tea
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 18:21
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    My memory may be a little bit fuzzy, but I believe I recall the entire general election of 2017 process being a stall before negotiations even started. As I remember it, May sent her letter to the EU in March 2017, the EU already had an idea on its negotiation position but then nothing came from the British side until way after the election. I am open to being corrected if I am misremembering facts.
    – Jan
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 3:30

I think the other answers are correct but they (politely) omit two important points:

  • The level of ignorance of some of the most senior UK politicians in power about the EU treaties and the Irish border issue, leading to a terrible lack preparation on the UK side.
  • The irreconcilable views inside the Conservative Party over what Brexit actually means.

The former lead Theresa May's government to vastly underestimate the challenge ahead of them, assuming that the EU would be rather accommodating even though the EU was not even legally allowed to offer the kind of accommodations that they wanted. Since at the beginning the UK government was hoping to easily reach an advantageous deal, there was little point involving the Parliament: most MPs would vote in favour of a presumably good and consensual deal anyway.

The latter lead Theresa May to adopt a "fog of war" strategy, illustrated by her (in)famous quote: "Brexit means Brexit". By keeping everyone in the dark about the details of the deal her government was pursuing, she was able to maintain the unity of her party. She knew that if she consulted the Parliament about the exact deal the UK should seek, the divisions would appear in broad daylight and she might lose her leadership. So instead she tried to bring a last-minute compromise which was meant to get her majority onboard by fear of the opposite result: Brexiteers would vote favourably to avoid staying longer under the EU rules, Remainers would vote favourably to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Needless to say, this strategy backfired spectacularly.


The original approach perhaps was flawed. Instead of negotiating smaller easy less controversial points and getting those passed early and often, before tackling bigger thornier issues, they decided to cobble everything together into one big bloated deal. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. But as relates to your question, the big disadvantage is that it can quickly get so complicated that it is impossible to keep updating everybody (or anybody eventually) about the details. It's just too much. This is why it appeared from those of us on the outside the May seemed to go 'silo', excluding even her own Brexit negotiators, and traveling to the EU over 50 times in total (24 trips to Brussels alone). She was away from Parliament often and attempting a broad highly detailed negotiation. It wasn't on purpose. It was just a natural result of the scale of what she was trying to do. She simply lost touch.

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    I'm not sure the EU would have agreed to split up the withdrawal negotiations into 'smaller, less controversial points' in the way you suggest. The structure and format of the negotiations was not something the UK could simply dictate. In fact, the EU was very assertive right at the start by saying: "The EU27 have discussed and this is how the negotiations must be conducted." The UK would probably have preferred to conduct withdrawal and trade discussion simultaneously, but the EU rejected that.
    – Time4Tea
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 18:10
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    @Time4Tea, I honestly don't believe anybody on either side had enough of a clue on how to approach negotiations such that anybody woud have been 'dictating' anything. It just sort of started out of a small snowball of an idea, some talks here and there, and turned into unpassable monstrosity. Looking back, I believe both sides would like to have probably tried out any of a number of different approaches to making the proper arrangements.
    – ouflak
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 21:54
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    @ouflak I agree that nobody on the UK side had a clue about the negotiations, but I think the negotiators on the EU27 side very well knew what they were (know what they are) doing.
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 12:01
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    @gerrit, They knew what the result of the Referendum was going to be? I kind of doubt it. In any case, if the EU negotiators truly 'knew what they were doing', they would have made sure there was deal that could be put forward and passed that everybody could live with, even if everybody didn't like it. Sorry, that's not Mrs May's deal. It's not even close. The result of that effort does not reflect well on any of them as far as their ability to actually successfully negotiate something workable.
    – ouflak
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 18:01
  • @Time4Tea, It seems reality is finally catching up with the negotiators.
    – ouflak
    Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 7:01

Comment in The Guardian:

The origins of the current crisis are to be found in the foolishness of the prime minister’s strategic response to the 2017 general election. If a close result in the 2016 referendum wasn’t a clear enough indication that a compromise would need to be found, then the 2017 general election that handed no majority to any party should have made the necessity of a cross-party approach obvious. It is absurd that days before we are due to leave the European Union, MPs are for the first time expressing their preferences in parliament rather than the TV studios and online. Attempting to conclude a process where it should have started is not a recipe for success.

A strategic mistake. Arrogance, perhaps.

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    As far as I can see, this effectively just says that it was foolish of May not to consult with parliament earlier. However, it does not answer the question posed here, namely why.
    – sleske
    Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 13:17

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