British MPs fail to agree alternative Brexit plan -- live updates

12:34 p.m. ET, March 27, 2019

Will Theresa May be able to bring her deal back for a third vote?

The leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, said earlier today that the government wanted to put the Prime Minister's Withdrawal Agreement before Parliament a third time before the end of this week. Speaker John Bercow has ruled that the motion put before MPs must be substantively different from the previous two occasions, citing the precedent that the same motion can't be put before Parliament twice in the same session.

In the light of the reports that a third vote might take place on Thursday or Friday, Bercow repeated that warning from the chair just now. And he also warned the government against using procedural devices to get around it.

This is what he said:

“I understand that the government may be thinking of bringing Meaningful Vote 3 before the House either tomorrow or even on Friday. I do expect the government to meet the test of change. They should not seek to circumvent my ruling by means of tabling either a notwithstanding motion or a paving motion.”

That's setting off all sorts of alarm bells. It would be deeply ironic if, having finally secured the support of arch-Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, and momentum flowing in the direction of her deal, the Speaker prevents it being voted on.

Such a move would cause even more bad blood between the Speaker and the government than exists now. And it would make things very problematic for Downing Street. Most commentators think the only way around that would be to dissolve this parliamentary session and start a new one. The trouble is, that would involve the Queen, who must give her assent to such a move. Buckingham Palace would be very nervous about a constitutionally apolitical monarch being inserted into a sensitive political situation.

11:27 a.m. ET, March 27, 2019

Speaker picks Brexit options for debate

House speaker John Bercow announces he is selecting eight amendments for debate. Those amendments are B, D, H, J, K, L, M, O. They cover the main alternatives we expected including no deal, customs union and a Canada-style free trade agreement.

Here's a reminder of how the options break down:

11:22 a.m. ET, March 27, 2019

Brexit 'indicative votes' will go ahead

MPs have voted 331 to 287 in favor of going ahead with today's business – a majority of 44. It's another defeat for the government, which had opposed the motion.

11:05 a.m. ET, March 27, 2019

HAPPENING NOW: House votes on whether to go ahead with unprecedented Brexit debate

MPs are voting now on whether to go ahead with today's unprecedented debate, with lawmakers in control of parliamentary business. If the motion is passed, a debate will follow and the famous indicative votes will take place at 7:00 p.m. (3:00 p.m. ET).

11:12 a.m. ET, March 27, 2019

What is the point of all this?

What happens later in the House of Commons will mean different things to different people.

The government, hellbent as it is on pursuing its Plan A to get May's Withdrawal Agreement approved by the end of this week, will take these indicative votes as guidance as to how is should proceed in negotiating a future relationship with the EU. As things stand, the clearest path to Brexit happening in the coming weeks is if May's deal passes. It's the preferred option of the government and the EU.

But if you oppose May's deal – and let's be clear, that gang includes opposition parties and many members of May's own Conservative Party, including former ministers – these alternative arrangements are what they want to see happen in place of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Essentially, if the UK wants to negotiate a new Withdrawal Agreement based on these votes, then it should probably strap in for an extended stay in the EU. Negotiating a new Withdrawal Agreement would likely take years, if the last negotiations were anything to go by.

But if the government gets its way, then these votes can be used to form policy once the UK leaves the EU on May 22.

It can't be much fun being a an MP this week.

11:00 a.m. ET, March 27, 2019

House leader says Parliament should accept May's deal

Andrea Leadsom delivered the government's position of Wednesday's business motion.
Andrea Leadsom delivered the government's position of Wednesday's business motion. Parliament.tv

Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, has expressed her disappointment that the government lost Monday night's vote when MPs took control of Wednesday's business.

"Those who are not in government are deciding the business and there are inevitable ramifications to that. I work constantly to represent Parliament's voice in government and today I am genuinely concerned that the decisions we are being obliged to make could result in parliament being extremely frustrated. It is highly likely that we could be in a position where the preferences of the House simply can not be achieved. Whatever the House decides needs to be both deliverable and negotiable."

Leadsom, who refused to take questions, said the EU had been clear that changing the Withdrawal Agreement which May brokered was simply not an option.

"This government wants to deliver on the referendum of 2016 in a way that maintains a deep and special partnership with the European Union. Urgent action is needed. Businesses and people can not be left in limbo any longer," she said urging her colleagues in the House to accept the divorce deal that has already been put before them.

10:48 a.m. ET, March 27, 2019

Rebel MP defends move to grab control of House business

Oliver Letwin speaks in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon.
Oliver Letwin speaks in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon. Parliament.tv

Given how complex -- and unprecedented -- Wednesday has become, lawmakers are still debating the business motion that sets out the procedure for the day.

Conservative parliamentarian Oliver Letwin, who is orchestrating today's events, has been defending his move.

He said the only way to avoid a no-deal Brexit is to "by crystalizing a majority and trying to carry it forward." If Conservative MPs would only support the Prime Minister's deal in a third vote, there would be no need for this debate.

The exchanges have been colorful, with much delving into British constitutional history to argue whether Letwin's maneuver is legitimate. At one point, Letwin spent some time debating the role of the Privy Council in the 16th century with the leading Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg.

10:28 a.m. ET, March 27, 2019

Theresa May allows free vote on Brexit alternatives

The government will not be telling its Conservative MPs how to vote in the indicative votes later. In a message to MPs, the chief whip, Julian Smith, said MPs would have a free vote, but but added that members of the Cabinet will be told to abstain.

Why has the government done this? The most likely reason is that it prevents another tranche of resignations by junior ministers. But it also shows that the Prime Minister is still willing to hear the opinions of those that oppose her. The Conservative Party is a broad church, so by abstaining but offering a free vote, May is cannot be accused of ignoring her own party.

10:05 a.m. ET, March 27, 2019

Happening now: Debate over lawmakers taking control of parliamentary agenda

In the House of Commons, debate of Oliver Letwin's Business of the House motion is underway.