Theresa May's government broke Brexit 'free vote' promise, triggering Conservative MP to resign

UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor / Supplied by ReutersBritish Conservative MP Nick Boles speaks at the House of Commons in London, Britain April 1, 2019.
  • Theresa May’s Conservative Party has suffered a string of resignations by pro-European members of Parliament.
  • Former Minister Nick Boles was the latest to quit the party in a dramatic moment on Monday, citing the government’s refusal to compromise.
  • Boles’ departure followed the defeat of his plan for a soft Brexit in the House of Commons.
  • The vote was promised to be “free” with MPs able to vote according to their conscience.
  • However, text messages seen by Business Insider reveal how the government privately lobbied Conservative MPs to oppose it.

LONDON – Theresa May’s Conservative party has suffered a series of resignations in recent weeks as pro-European Members of Parliament have resigned the party whip in protest at the prime minister’s refusal to compromise on Brexit.

The most dramatic of these resignations was the former Conservative minister Nick Boles, who literally crossed the House of Commons floor on Monday evening, after the government defeated his plan for a soft Brexit, in which Britain would remain in the EU Customs Union and Single Market.

The result prompted Boles to immediately resign the Conservative whip, telling the Commons that his plan had failed “chiefly because my party refuses to compromise.”

Watch Nick Boles’ resign over Brexit.


Boles departure followed the result of a series of “indicative votes” designed to be a chance for MPs to break the Brexit impasse by proposing alternatives to May’s Brexit deal.

Under House of Commons convention, MPs are typically “whipped” to vote a certain way, with disciplinary measures potentially taken against those who disobey their whip.

However the indicative votes were promised by the Conservative leadership to be “free” with MPs able to vote according to their conscience.

The government’s chief whip Julian Smith had previously sent a message to all Conservative MPs stating that “the indicative votes this evening will be free votes. All members of the Cabinet and those that attend Cabinet will be abstaining.”

However, text messages sent by a more junior government whip, and seen by Business Insider, reveal that Conservative MPs were also lobbied specifically not to back Boles’ plan.

The whip texted Conservative MPs saying that the amendment had been devised by Labour and would force the UK to retain freedom of movement.

The whip also said that the Common Market plan would lose state aid advantages that could win some Labour support for the deal.

Following the lobbying operation, Boles’ “Common Market 2.0” plan was defeated by 282 votes to 261, as were all the other alternative Brexit plans.

Boles, who will now sit as an “independent progressive Conservative,” is reported to have been particularly angry at the “particularly aggressive whipping operation” used by the government, according to BBC Newsnight.

Conservative sources told Business Insider that Chief whip Julian Smith, who has responsibility for overall discipline made clear to colleagues that he had not sanctioned the briefing against the Common Market 2.0 plan.

Brexit deadlock

However, the failure by MPs to back an alternative plan has left the UK in a Brexit impasse, with the prime minister already requesting two additional delays to Brexit.

The prime minister has now indicated that she will attempt to secure a deal by negotiating a compromise with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, with many Tory MPs concerned that she will be forced to soften her deal, possibly by adding a permanent customs union to her deal.

There are also plans to hold a third round of indicative votes on Monday, with MPs involved in the process considering introducing a preferential voting system which would force colleagues to choose their favourite option.

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