Following the historic defeat of the Prime Minister’s deal we need to find a way forward, which Parliament will support, otherwise as the law stands we will exit with no deal on 29 March.
The words ‘tenacious’ and ‘rigid’ don’t quite capture the Prime Minister’s inflexibility – refusing to rule out no-deal or consider a customs union.
So we need another approach. As John McDonnell said on the Today programme on Monday morning, it would be good if Parliament took control. This would be a decision for all MPs. There is nothing undemocratic or unparliamentary about it – it is not a coup or a seizing of executive power, it is simply saying on one or two days, Parliament is going to decide what it debates and votes on and not simply do the Government’s bidding.
In this space, we could debate Nick Boles and Liz Kendall’s bill. This has one great strength: it includes a clause to stop us crashing out without a deal on 29 March. But it also has a significant weakness: it tasks the Liaison Committee of Select Committee Chairs with coming up with a new plan. Some of my best friends are on the Liaison Committee, but a quarter of them are appointed not elected, and those who were elected were chosen for a quite different function – to scrutinise the Government not to perform executive functions. We don’t need a new Committee on Public Safety.
However what they could usefully do is oversee a better way of Parliament reaching a decision.
One of the fundamental problems we face in Parliament is that using divisions to decide complex problems with many options, means it is easy to defeat an option, but it is difficult to build a consensus. This is what happened on Lords reform – everyone wanted it, but no option secured a majority so we couldn’t agree on how to do it. So we need a different decision-making approach.
However, we do use a different approach when we elect the speaker and chairs for select committees. In these instances we use paper ballots and vote on preferences. In the case of the Speaker we use successive ballots, with the bottom candidate dropping out; in the case of select committee chairs we use the alternative vote counting method.
We could use this technique for voting on our own Brexit preferences.
The advantages of this would be we’d have a consensus, a winning option and the power to block every option and the gamesmanship we saw in the Lords reform votes would end. At the moment everyone is jockeying for their option to be the ‘last man standing’ – this puts huge power into the hands of whoever decides the order of votes, whether it’s the Speaker or the Liaison Committee (or the government) balloting in this way stops this.
Of course it would be vital that the ballot was transparent not secret – I am not offering a hiding place for MPs – but a new way to reach a parliamentary consensus and I hope we can amend Nick Boles’ bill to achieve what I thought Brexit was all about: parliamentary sovereignty.
Helen Goodman is the Labour MP for Bishop Auckland and a former deputy leader of the House