Something needs to break the logjam and another public vote looks like the best option. But to win the votes it needs in parliament, its proponents will have to think the unthinkableby Tom Clark / April 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
Every branch of the Brexit probability tree looks decidedly unlikely. But, of course, one of them is going to have to happen.
Crash out? Parliament’s voted and now even legislated to try and prevent it. And more pertinently—seeing as it’s ultimately European rather than British law that really bites here—there is, in the judgment of the BBC’s superbly-connected Katya Addler, “no EU appetite for a chaotic Brexit.”
Simply revoke? Despite six million plus signatures on the “just make it stop” petition, most MPs and probably most voters too are not yet in a place where this could be countenanced. The vow on all sides in 2016 was to abide by the vote, and the big players including Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May and all her plausible successors do not think it can just be swept aside.
Get a deal through? Even May has conceded that her own deal is as good as dead, using a video this week to concede “I can’t see them [MPs] accepting it.” The talks between her and Jeremy Corbyn are supposed to explore the possibility of an alternative deal, though the noises thus far imply no one is budging very far, and indeed it’s hard to see much political advantage in anyone doing so.
Some say Corbyn wants Britain out of Europe, or at least wants the European question out of the way, but whatever his views on the EU, they count for little when compared to his overriding interest in getting the Tories out. He is not going to be helped in that by acquiescing in Brexit when most of his MPs and indeed his rank-and-file members bitterly oppose the very idea; even if the PM were to budge, he will be sorely tempted to find some way or another to dismiss whatever emerges as an unacceptable “Tory Brexit.” Likewise, May has been warned by many of her ministers that they would walk in the event of any serious compromise with Corbyn. How far, really, can we expect the PM to go in the haggling to avoid a disorderly exit for the country if it guarantees one for her personally?
So what’s left? Enthusiasts for a second referendum continue to hope—as they always have—that with a gridlocked parliament the last idea standing will soon be to throw the question back to the people. But they have a problem. Although they got reasonably close to winning on the second round of indicative votes in the Commons last week—securing 280 votes in favour, with 292 being against—they still need to win over a body of extra MPs to force the pace.
The bare arithmetic might suggest only another six switchers are required, but in reality it is more than that. For one thing, Conservative cabinet ministers, who were whipped to abstain last week, would mostly go through the lobbies against it when it comes to the crunch about a fresh referendum most of them fear could finally destroy their warring party. For another, some of those Labour MPs, who followed the whip to support the indicative motion, might change their minds if they thought a second referendum was actually going to happen.
Several dozen of them really do believe that to rerun the referendum would be to show their voters contempt. In many a Leave-leaning town, several have told me that the pressure to “just get on and leave, if needs be with no-deal” has been building since last autumn. It can be hard for London MPs and journalists to accept this, because there is no evidence of it in the capital: but that doesn’t prove that it isn’t real. A Labour Remainer in a strongly Leave town told me she had swapped notes on emails with a colleague in inner London: she had had 1,000 emails demanding no-deal, against 43 demanding a second referendum; he had had 1,000 calling for a new vote, and not a single one demanding no-deal.
With this sort of variety between constituencies, those final few votes could be hard to find on the Labour side, especially if the choice is winnowed down towards that between May’s derided deal or something even softer, and staying in. Labour’s referendum sceptics would insist that it is not only their party, but faith in democracy that would take a battering in places where it is believed that the people had spoken, and been ignored.
So where to look instead? Just maybe on the wilder fringes of the Conservative benches. A couple of Tory leavers have told me they would “never” vote for May’s deal or anything softer, and, assuming no-deal remains out of play, they would accept “any length of extension” to avoid the government’s deal. But, as the EU is likely to make plain this week, endlessly renewed extensions are unlikely to be offered. Somehow, sometime, Europe will force things to a crunch, and it is not only Remainers but also Leavers that need to face up to that. The Brexiteers retain some reason for hoping that this will in the end come about by Britain being shunted out without a deal, but if there is determination on the part of those they style as “all-powerful elites” to avoid the disruption of that on both sides of the Channel, then how confident can they really be?
Their last-best hope just might be to embrace a referendum, which includes an option of what they like to call a “clean WTO Brexit.” Even if the odds are long, some would prefer to go down as insurgents in battle than be sullied by messy compromise. Other Brexiteers are now so convinced that an abrupt Brexit is the settled “will of the people” that they would fancy their chances. Indeed, there are some pro-European Labour MPs who—overpowered by nationalist sentiment in 2016—read things the same way, and argue that it would be irresponsible to allow no-deal on any ballot.
But the former education secretary, Justine Greening, dares to be bolder. Since leaving government early last year, she has emerged as one of the most persuasive advocates for a new referendum. As early as last summer, she saw exactly how May would end up snookered in the Commons, and proposed that the only way to build broad enough support to achieve another vote, and secure real legitimacy for it, would be to make this a wide-open democratic consultation, rather than a stitch-up against the Leavers.
She proposed a straight three-way choice between no-deal, a government deal and no Brexit. Voters would rank a first and a second-preference, and the lowest ranking option would be eliminated and the second preferences from those who’d backed it would be redistributed. Some have attacked it as hopelessly complicated, but Greening tells me it’s just “rubbish” to say voters couldn’t cope: “it’s the system they already use for mayoral and police commissioner elections.” As to whether a vote on this wide-open referendum might attract those missing MPs, one Brexiteer minister has already told Greening that he is “now coming round to your way of thinking,” and there are very good reasons why others might follow.
But could nervous Remainers, who have backed a referendum thus far, become so scared about the result that they would sink the Greening proposal in parliament? Perhaps. A lot would depend on the evidence. All polling invites a bit of caution these days, and especially when it concerns a still-hypothetical choice which would be settled after an emotionally-charged campaign. But the evidence we do have thus far suggests no-deal would be unlikely to get close to a majority: only 26 per cent of voters told YouGov they wanted it, more than other Brexit detailed options for sure, but far less than favoured a new referendum leading to Remain.
Besides, as cannot be said too often, Britain is not in control of the process, an increasingly impatient EU is. If we can’t find a way forward at home, then we could before long find no-deal is served without anyone having voted for it.
Something unlikely is going to have to give as Britain takes the next branch of that probability tree. Remainers rediscovering their faith in the power of their own argument to carry the day is certainly not the worst result. And maybe not the most improbable either.