This graph shows where the British Parliament might agree on Brexit

Anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray demonstrates outside the House of Parliament on March 11. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray demonstrates outside the House of Parliament on March 11. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)This graph shows where the British Parliament might agree on Brexit

The United Kingdom’s House of Commons is deadlocked over Brexit, after Prime Minister Theresa May twice failed to get the House of Commons to support the withdrawal agreement she has negotiated with the European Union. May has lost some control of the process. Since the last vote on her agreement, the House of Commons has held “indicative” votes aimed at gauging support for possible options. Those range from the U.K. leaving the European Union with no deal to having a second Brexit referendum.

By looking at which members of Parliament voted for which option, we can begin to figure out the possible coalitions of support.

What has Parliament voted on so far?

On Wednesday, MPs voted on eight motions selected by speaker John Bercow. (In the U.K., members of the House of Commons elect the speaker to rule on procedure.)

These motions included:

  • No Deal, or leaving without an agreement on April 12, which will likely create severe disruptions in the economy;
  • Preferential trade agreements with the E.U. if the U.K. cannot agree on a deal;
  • “Common Market 2.0,” or membership in the European Free Trade Area and the European Economic Area with a “comprehensive customs arrangement”;
  • Membership in the European Economic Area but no membership in the customs union, which would in theory allow the U.K. to conduct its own trade policy;
  • Full membership in the customs union, which would keep free trade between the U.K. and the rest of the European Union, but the U.K. would have to adopt the same tariffs as the E.U. toward third countries;
  • The Labour Party’s Brexit plan, which would include a customs union but possibly give the U.K. a greater say in future trade deals;
  • Halting Brexit by revoking Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union until a solution is found;
  • A second nationwide referendum in which voters must approve any deal the U.K. makes with the E.U.

Unsurprisingly, none of these options got majority support from MPs. All were defeated. But these votes may reveal where the possible coalitions might be.

To analyze this, I have built a social network of the British Parliament by using the recorded votes of each MP on these eight motions. The options are sized in proportion to the number of votes they got. Different colors represent different communities, that is, groups of MPs whose preferences overlap; MPs who voted against all the options aren’t shown. Each MP is linked to the options he or she has supported.

This gives some idea both of the divisions among different groups and overlaps in support for different options, which in turn may indicate where bridges could be built.

How members of Parliament voted on what Brexit options they would support. (Alexandre Afonso /Alexandre Afonso)
How members of Parliament voted on what Brexit options they would support. (Alexandre Afonso /Alexandre Afonso)

The graphic shows that the House of Commons is highly polarized. In the upper left corner, a group of hard line Conservative MPs cluster around the No Deal option, possibly accompanied by a preferential trade agreement with the European Union. In the lower right corner, a group of mostly Labour MPs are pushing for either a second referendum or a halt to Brexit by revoking Article 50. In the lower middle of the figure cluster a number of “soft Brexit” options, including Labour’s plan, a customs union and Common Market 2.0.

The only option that bridges the group of Hard Brexiteers and the soft Brexit crowd is the European Economic Area/EFTA option. That’s a variant of the relationship that Norway has with the E.U., which involves its participation in the European Single Market, but also the automatic adoption of E.U. legislation without having a say in its formulation. However, it has little support.

The graph suggests that the customs union and Common Market 2.0 are the most promising options for coalition building. They are both closer to the center of the network and supported by more MPs. However, for any of these options to gather a majority in the future, a substantial number of MPs would have to change their minds.

A graph of this sort can convey the relative positions of MPs over different deals, but it provides no information about the relative intensity of their support, which will also have important political consequences.

Alexandre Afonso (@alexandreafonso) is an assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

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