Chris Stafford



The UK political system is not one that traditionally privileges the views of voters over those they elect to represent them in Parliament.  MPs are, officially at least, elected to represent the best interests of their constituents, using their expert knowledge and access to privileged information to do this.  


The issue of the UK’s membership of the European Union is different though. In 2016 voters were directly asked for their opinion in what was only the third nation-wide referendum in UK history.  The outcome of this referendum is of course well known, with 52% of voters stating that they wanted to leave the referendum.  On the other hand, only around 25% of MPs claimed that they voted to do the same. 


As shown by Figure 1 below, this resulted in a significant number of MPs being ‘out of step’ with their constituents on this issue, having expressed the opposite view than the majority did.  Having been given a rare, direct say in the policy direction of their country, voters expected their desires to be listened to and acted upon.


Figure 1: MPs who were ‘out of step’ at the 2016 Referendum with their constituents 

Brexit Frustrations


More recently, as progress on Brexit seemed to stall, there was much talk of ‘remainer MPs’ trying to ‘frustrate the referendum result’.  However, in reality it is not that simple.  Early on in the Brexit process the vast majority of MPs voted to allow the UK to leave the EU, regardless of their position at the referendum.   The European Union [Notification of Withdrawal] Bill was passed by the House of Commons in February 2017.  This gave the government the authority to trigger Article 50 and bring about the start to the withdrawal process.  Unsurprisingly, all MPs that voted to leave in 2016 supported the Bill, but at the same time 73% of MPs who voted to remain in 2016 also did the same. 


Figure 2: How MPs Voted on the triggering of Article 50 based on their referendum stance


However, while the majority of MPs appeared to yield to the referendum result and voted to facilitate its implementation, the real problem came in deciding exactly what that should look like.  As 2018 drew to a close Theresa May planned to put her proposed withdrawal agreement to the House of Commons.  Theresa May’s withdrawal deal would have gotten the UK out of the EU and could have done so on the originally scheduled date of 29th March 2019.


However, with it looking increasingly unlikely that this deal was going to be accepted by Parliament, and Theresa May even postponed the vote into the New Year in an attempt to buy her more time to get support for it.  However, that support never came.  Three times it was put to the House of Commons and three times it was rejected, albeit by a smaller majority each time. 


To blame this on MPs who did not actually want to leave the EU only tells half the story. Although many of those MPs that sided with remain in 2016 did vote against Theresa May’s withdrawal deal in early 2019 and delay the UK’s departure from the EU, the same is also true for significant numbers of MPs who supported leaving in 2016 as well.  Only in the Third Meaningful Vote was the number of remain MPs voting against it significantly larger than the number of leave MPs, thanks largely to the latter being placated by Theresa May’s offer to step down if the deal was accepted. 

Figure 3: How MPs Voted in the Meaningful Votes based on their referendum stance


While it may seem a little simplistic, supporting the deal in the meaningful votes would have gotten the UK out of the EU.  MPs had a chance to deliver on the 2016 referendum result and they chose not to do so due to various different concerns and visions of Brexit. 


Indicative Votes

After MPs rejected Theresa May’s withdrawal deal for the second time, they were given the chance to express their opinions on alternative courses of action in non-binding indicative votes.  MPs were given a choice of eight options and asked to indicate whether they would support them or not.  Depending on the details of the motions, it is not always straightforward to compare how MPs voted on these to their referendum stances and those of their constituents.  Different proposals for customs unions and EFTA membership are more nuanced and technical and cannot easily be linked to referendum preferences.   However, three of the motions can be linked a little more clearly and also proved statistically significant during analysis. 


Debates on whether to leave without a deal, to have a second referendum or to stop Brexit altogether were prominent in the public debate.   Looking at how MPs voted in relation to their 2016 referendum position, there does seem to be some link between the two.  The majority of MPs who signalled that they were happy to leave the EU without a deal had also voted to leave in 2016.  On the other hand, almost all of the MPs that rejected this idea had voted to remain in 2016. For the other two motions the results are more mixed.  While the majority of those MPs voting in favour of having a second referendum or cancelling Brexit outright were Remainers in 2016, those voting against such notions were more or less equally drawn from both the leave and remain camps. This is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Votes for Indicative Motions based MP’s 2016 referendum stance


Additionally, if we then take into account how an MP’s constituency voted in the 2016 referendum, it seems that this may have actually had a notable impact on how MPs voted during the indicative votes.  Plotting the probabilities of how MPs might vote (using regression analysis to plot the margins) in Figure 5 we can see that an MP’s support for a particular option correlates closely to how their constituency voted in 2016. 


MPs were more likely to support leaving without a deal (Motion B) if their constituents voted to leave the EU in 2016, while those MPs from remain voting constituencies were much less likely to support a ‘no deal’ scenario.  For the other two motions (a second referendum or cancelling Article 50), MPs from leave supporting constituencies were significantly more likely to oppose such actions than those MPs that represented remain supporting constituencies.

Figure 5: The Probability of MPs voting for a motion in the Indicative Votes in relation to how their constituency voted in the 2016 Referendum      

‘The Will of the People’


In summary then, despite the fact that many MPs wanted a significantly different relationship between the UK and the EU than their constituents, the data suggests that MPs have actually been quite representative of their constituents’ desires.  While it may be contentious to suggest, the failure of Theresa May’s withdrawal deal and the delays to Brexit owe just as much to leave-supporting MPs as it does remain-supporting ones. 


While the relationship between MPs and their constituents is of course more complex than numbers alone can portray, the data expressed here suggests that MPs have made more of an effort to represent the desires of their constituents than many have given them credit for. 


Chris Stafford is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Nottingham. He tweets at @CJStafford14. Image credit: CC by UK Parliament/Flickr.