Handout photo from the House of Commons of the indicative votes papers to be used by MPs tonight in Parliament. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday March 27, 2019. See PA story POLITICS Brexit. Photo credit should read: House of Commons/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.
The indicative vote ballot paper used by MPs in the first round of polling © PA

Rival groups of MPs are rewriting their alternative plans to prime minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, after a first round of votes failed to produce a House of Commons majority for any of the proposals.

Significant numbers of MPs backed a soft Brexit and a second EU referendum on Wednesday, in the first opportunity that the Commons has had to pass judgment on various options for leaving or remaining in the bloc.

A second round of voting is scheduled for Monday if Mrs May fails to secure MPs’ approval for her EU withdrawal treaty on Friday.

The so-called indicative votes, instigated by backbench MPs who took control of the Commons agenda, is meant to try to end the deadlock at Westminster over Mrs May’s Brexit deal.

Oliver Letwin, the former Conservative minister behind the initiative, is hoping MPs will forge a consensus on an alternative to the prime minister’s exit package.

Should Mrs May’s deal be rejected in the Commons on Friday, many Tory MPs who have so far only supported the government’s exit package “may come round” and support a different way forward, said Sir Oliver.

Other supporters of indicative votes said they could yet produce a Commons majority for one option, now that MPs had a chance to reflect on the parliamentary arithmetic.

The groups of MPs behind the alternative plans to Mrs May’s deal are now tweaking their proposals to maximise potential support.

The most popular options on Wednesday were a second Brexit referendum (268 votes in favour, 295 against) and a customs union between the UK and the EU (265 votes in favour, 271 against).

The customs union would have won a majority had it received the backing of the Scottish National party, the Liberal Democrats or the Independent Group, all of whom instead held out for another referendum.

A total of 311 MPs voted for the customs union, membership of the EU single market, or both. That is just short of a majority in the Commons.

MPs favouring a soft Brexit may meld together their plans, including the customs union proposed by the Conservative Ken Clarke, and so-called Common Market 2.0, which involves membership of the single market and was put forward by the Tory Nick Boles.

Common Market 2.0 was the fourth most popular option on Wednesday, with 188 votes in favour.

Its supporters took heart from how a large number of MPs abstained, rather than vote against.

For example, the SNP abstained because the proposal pointed to tighter immigration controls, but it could be won over if that changes.

The Democratic Unionist party, which wants to avoid regulatory differences between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland after Brexit, also abstained on the proposal, while its MPs voted against most other options.

Meanwhile, the proposal for a second referendum by Labour’s Margaret Beckett could pick up support by making clear that the choices on the ballot paper would include a soft Brexit.

Sir Oliver said the voting system on Monday would be a “plain vanilla replica” of the one used on Wednesday.

MPs will be able to vote for as many plans as they want. There will be no mechanism for eliminating the least popular options in order to generate a winner, which means additional days of debate could be required.

“This leaves it to the politicians to seek adjustments or to negotiate in ways that lead to a majority emerging,” said Sir Oliver.

MPs have until Friday afternoon to submit their proposals for Monday’s debate. The Commons speaker John Bercow is expected to have a key role in selecting which ones are voted on.

Additional reporting by Martin Stabe

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