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Divisions in the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union


Philip Lynch and Richard Whitaker

The Select Committee on Exiting the European Union (the DExEU committee, or Brexit committee) is one of the most divided since the creation of departmental select committees in 1979. It has seen divisions – that is, formal votes on reports or amendments – on each of its reports and Eurosceptic members issued an alternative report in March 2018. This piece shows that the DExEU committee is unusual in having a clear fault-line between those who support a harder Brexit and those who favour a softer Brexit, and that the former tend to be outvoted.

Committee members and the Leave-Remain divide

Of the DExEU committee’s 21 members, 14 campaigned for Remain in the 2016 EU referendum: six Labour, four Conservative, two SNP, one Liberal Democrat and one Plaid Cymru (see Table 1). Five of the Labour MPs subsequently voted for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill 2016 which triggered Article 50, but Stephen Timms voted against and has rebelled on votes on staying in the single market and customs union. The four Conservative Remainers voted to trigger Article 50, but Jonathan Djanogly and Jeremy Lefroy rebelled on the Grieve amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in December 2017. Seven DExEU committee members voted Leave: six Conservatives and one DUP. These Conservatives are all members of the European Research Group (including its Chairman, Jacob Rees-Mogg) which advocates a hard Brexit. The current DExEU committee (and its Conservative cohort) has two fewer Leave-supporting MPs than in 2016-17.

Voting on DExEU committee reports

The DExEU and Northern Ireland select committees are the only ones in which the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) together have a majority. However, these parties have rarely been able to take advantage of this because the DExEU committee is not divided primarily along party lines. Most divisions have seen Leave-supporting MPs oppose those who supported Remain, indicating a Leave versus Remain fault-line. However this terminology is problematic as some committee members who backed Remain then voted to trigger Article 50, and the committee itself does not suggest halting Brexit. The divide is better described as one between those favouring a harder Brexit and those favouring a softer Brexit.

The level of division in the committee as a whole can be seen by assessing the 41 votes taken by the committee on the first four reports of the 2017-19 session using the Rice Index. This is calculated by finding the absolute value of the difference in the proportion of the committee voting yes and that voting no, and multiplying the result by 100. The index varies between zero, where the committee is split 50:50, and 100 where all members vote the same way. When interpreting Rice Index values for the DExEU committee, we should note that because there are only 21 committee members, the Index is rather sensitive to small changes in the numbers voting yes or no. Nevertheless, it still gives us a broad indication of the level of division. The average Rice Index value for the committee as a whole in votes on reports is only 23.

If we look at the Rice Index by party and by referendum position, we see that MPs who voted Leave in the referendum score 100 on the index for 38 of the 41 divisions on the first four reports of the 2017-19 session. The main exception was when committee vice-chair John Whittingdale was the only Leave MP to support the final version of the 1st Report. Those voting Remain, on the other hand, have an average Rice Index value of 80. Labour MPs voted entirely cohesively on all 41 votes, while Conservatives were much more divided with a Rice Index average of 48. Lefroy and Djanogly are the Conservatives most likely to side with the majority, but Remain-voter Richard Graham has often voted with his more Eurosceptic colleagues. Looking at the outcomes of votes on reports, while they tend to vote cohesively, hard Brexiteers have been in the majority only five times (see Table 1). Our multivariate analysis of voting in a soft Brexit direction on reports showed that an MP’s position in the referendum has by far the largest effect on the direction in which they vote, with party affiliation coming second.

Devolution is another fault line on the committee. The highest value for the Rice Index for the whole committee on votes on reports is 58, for a division in the 3rd Report of 2017-19 where the committee was split along Union versus devolution lines. This divide was evident in the 2016-17 session when five of the 11 divisions across three reports saw a Union-devolution divide and five a hard versus soft Brexit split.

Only seven of the 86 departmental select committee reports published so far this session have seen divisions, but all have been on Brexit-related issues. 14 of the 18 Brexit-related reports have achieved unanimity, including those on customs, immigration (both Home Affairs), transitional arrangements (Treasury), and the impact of Brexit on key sectors (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). The one division on the International Trade select committee’s report on EU trade agreements after Brexit saw the sole (Conservative) Leave supporter vote against an amendment on participation in the customs union and single market. However, there were also were seven Leave-Remain divisions on the European Scrutiny Committee’s report on transitional arrangements. But no other committee has such a stark divide between Leave and Remain members as the DExEU committee.

Eurosceptic opposition

Select Committees usually operate on a consensual basis, and unanimous reports are regarded as carrying more weight. Most reports are agreed without divisions. But too great an emphasis on achieving unanimity may mean committees avoiding inquiries on controversial topics or settling for anodyne reports. Achieving consensus on the DExEU committee was always a tall order given its size, status as lead committee on such a contentious issue, and the entrenched positions of some of its members. Efforts have been made to reach agreement, with such meetings often lasting several hours, and have borne fruit on many issues.  But relations between Eurosceptics and chair Hilary Benn have been strained in this and the previous session. Benn recognises that divisions will occur, and the reports have produced bold (but sometimes contested) recommendations.

Conservative Eurosceptics have used the committee to put their views on the record and challenge the Remain/soft Brexit position. They have voted against each report in the current session. In the third report of 2017-19, the seven Leave-supporting members backed an alternative draft report tabled by Rees-Mogg which struck a more optimistic tone on a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a free trade agreement and the government’s approach. Although rejected, it is included in the formal minutes (in effect, as a minority report). This was one of 18 unsuccessful amendments to reports put forward by Leave members (see Table 2). Eurosceptics also opposed the recommendation that the Article 50 period be extended if agreement on the Future Partnership is not reached by October 2018 (para. 86). They also voted against the 15 tests for the Future Partnership set out in the 4th report (para. 181), and the suggestion – proposed by Graham – that EFTA/EEA membership has advantages should negotiations on a deep and special partnership fail (para. 114). These ambitious tests and tacit support for a ‘Norway-style’ arrangement are likely to provoke divisions on future DExEU reports.

Divided but influential?

Divisions and tensions within may be damaging, but it does not necessarily follow that the DExEU committee is ineffective. Russell and Benton’s research on select committee influence shows how it can vary from its most direct form, in which the government implements committee recommendations, to indirect forms such as drawing attention to issues, acting as a source of evidence, and holding ministers to account. In the 2016-17 session, DExEU recommendations on a transition period, a parliamentary vote on the final deal, and the publication of a White Paper on the government’s approach to negotiations helped to set the agenda and bring about a change in the government’s position. In its responses to their first two reports of 2017-19, the government has neither endorsed nor rejected many recommendations.

Ministers have also faced challenging questions from committee members. A comment by David Davis to the committee in October 2017 on a ‘meaningful vote’ prompted an urgent question in the Commons. Finally, the committee has also published the government’s sectoral analyses and economic analysis, although Labour’s ‘motion for a return’ humble addresses were critical here. Most Conservative Eurosceptic members voted against their publication, but the Conservative cohort did defeat motions stating that the government had not complied with the humble address on the sectoral analyses and proposing the publication of unredacted versions.

DExEU committee reports are notable for their breadth and depth, drawing upon their own inquiries and those of other committees. The scale of Brexit-related work underway across the House of Commons allows a range of issues to be covered, but there are questions about coordination. Select committees may also reach differing conclusions (e.g. the Treasury committee report on transitional arrangements did not endorse suggestions that the Article 50 process could be extended), allowing the government to support those closest to its position. Nonetheless, common themes are emerging across recent reports, such as opposition to a ‘no deal’ scenario and support for continued regulatory alignment and close links with key EU agencies after Brexit, making it more difficult for the government to dismiss them.


Table 1 Voting on DExEU committee reports, 2017-19

MP Party Position in referendum Votes with majority on committee Votes with minority on committee
Hilary Benn (Chair) Labour Remain 2 (100%) 0 (0%)
Peter Bone Conservative Leave 5 (17%) 24 (83%)
Christopher Chope Conservative Leave 5 (12%) 36 (88%)
Stephen Crabb Conservative Remain 29 (88%) 4 (12%)
Jonathan Djanogly Conservative Remain 21 (77%) 6 (13%)
Richard Graham Conservative Remain 16 (48%) 17 (52%)
Andrea Jenkyns Conservative Leave 1 (5%) 20 (95%)
Jeremy Lefroy Conservative Remain 38 (93%) 3 (7%)
Craig Mackinlay Conservative Leave 5 (12%) 36 (88%)
Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative Leave 5 (12%) 36 (88%)
John Whittingdale Conservative Leave 8 (24%) 25 (76%)
Stephen Kinnock Labour Remain 37 (90%) 4 (10%)
Seema Malhotra Labour Remain 37 (90%) 4 (10%)
Pat McFadden Labour Remain 29 (88%) 4 (12%)
Emma Reynolds Labour Remain 20 (95%) 1 (5%)
Stephen Timms Labour Remain 37 (90%) 4 (10%)
Joanna Cherry SNP Remain 36 (88%) 5 (12%)
Peter Grant SNP Remain 36 (88%) 5 (12%)
Wera Hobhouse Lib Dem Remain 35 (88%) 5 (12%)
Hywell Williams Plaid Cymru Remain 36 (88%) 5 (12%)
Sammy Wilson DUP Leave 5 (12%) 36 (88%)

Note: as Chair, Hilary Benn only votes in the event of a tie. He has done so twice, on both occasions voting with Remain-supporting members.


Table 2 Amendments to DExEU committee reports, 2017-19

MP Number of successful amendments proposed Number of unsuccessful amendments proposed
Hilary Benn (Chair) 1 0
Christopher Chope 0 2
Richard Graham 1 0
Jacob Rees-Mogg 0 11
Stephen Kinnock 2 0
Pat McFadden 1 1
Peter Grant 1 1
Sammy Wilson 0 5

Note: One additional unsuccessful amendment on devolution is not recorded here as the committee minutes do not identify its (SNP?) proposer.