Brexit: what is a free vote and why is Theresa May allowing one?

Labour claims prime minister ‘has given up any pretence of leading the country’

Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions
Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions a day after her Brexit deal suffered a second heavy defeat
(Image credit: Parliament TV)

Tory MPs will get a free vote on a no-deal Brexit this evening.

Struggling with a sore throat, after a tough week in which her withdrawal deal was rejected for a second time by MPs, Theresa May today said she would be voting to rule out a no-deal exit on 29 March.

But Conservative ministers and MPs will be allowed to make up their own minds, “an unusual move for a vote on a major policy”, says the BBC.

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So what is a free vote?

Each party appoints whips, whose job is to make sure the maximum number of MPs or lords vote in the Houses of Parliament - and vote the way that the party wants. Their job is even more important if the majority of the party in power is small, as with the current Tory government. A free vote, or unwhipped vote, is therefore one in which “MPs or members of the Lords are not put under pressure to vote a certain way by their party leaders”, explains

Why is today’s free vote unusual?

As a rule, free votes may be allowed for internal Commons decisions and for ethical issues that are seen as a matter of conscience, such as same-sex marriage, but rarely for issues “seen as central to political life”, says Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

In an article for The Times, he writes that today’s vote falls squarely into a third category - “issues where a free vote will get a party out of a hole”.

“To have whipped either for or against no deal would have provoked cabinet and other ministerial resignations. That is where its importance lies,” Cowley says.

A Labour Party spokesperson claimed the move shows that May “has given up any pretence of leading the country”.

Indeed, The Daily Telegraph adds: “While it is unlikely to change the overall result of the vote, with MPs expected to reject no deal, it is a sign of the prime minister’s diminished position.”

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