A second referendum is closer than it has ever been before

The momentum is moving too slowly—but it is moving

April 03, 2019
Photo: Ollie Millngton / Rmv/Zuma Press/PA Images
Photo: Ollie Millngton / Rmv/Zuma Press/PA Images

Shall we start with the good news or the bad news? The bad news is that the country is on its knees, our political system is collapsing in real time, and the prime minister has once again laid a trap to take us out of the EU with no deal on 22nd May. The good news is that we are closer to a second referendum than we have ever been.

Let us first deal with the numbers. In the last week—which admittedly appears to have lasted several years—MPs have twice engaged in indicative votes to determine different Brexit outcomes, and also, for the third time, defeated Theresa May’s withdrawal deal. In the first round of votes last Wednesday, a customs union came closest to securing a majority, but Margaret Beckett’s amendment for a confirmatory referendum won the most votes, with 268. In the second round, this Monday, the pattern was repeated, but a referendum had now won 280 votes. Admittedly, May’s deal won 286 votes on Friday, but was defeated by a majority of 58. The indicative vote for a referendum on Monday was defeated by a majority of just 12. Cabinet ministers were ordered not to participate.

It is true that the momentum is moving too slowly—but it is moving. Between the first and second round, seven more Tories came on board for a referendum (making 15 when added to the original eight), as did five more Labour MPs (making 203 in total). In contrast, May’s deal seemed to have reached its peak on Friday. The DUP did not budge for her. Neither, in the main, did Labour MPs. Several hardline Leavers from the ERG switched over to support her, but some of those are now in fact reverting to oppose the deal. We are now just seven days from the emergency EU summit which determines the length of any Article 50 extension, if indeed we can extend it at all. Conservatives in the cabinet are beginning to discuss the inevitability of putting a vote to the people in order to deliver May’s deal. Something has to give.

Last night May did, in the end, give something: a trap for no-deal and rope for the Labour Party to hang itself. In her televised statement following an unimaginable seven-hour cabinet meeting, the prime minister first declared that she would seek a further extension, then that she would consult Jeremy Corbyn on what the new proposal should look like, and finally that she had no intention for the country to participate in May’s European elections.

The first two points were long overdue. The final one revealed that she is in terminal denial. There is absolutely no possibility that the parties can decide a new political declaration, agree it with the EU, vote through the withdrawal agreement, then ratify the necessary legislation before 22nd May. Our political system has been paralysed for three years and will not suddenly reanimate itself in a few weeks. As such, this looks like the exact same deceit that she attempted to engineer last Friday: to appear consensual and reasonable but in fact blackmail the country with a choice of her unamended deal or no deal at all. If we do not notify our participation in the European elections by the deadline next Friday, and only extend until 22nd May, there will be no further chance to extend because those elections begin the next day.

Let us then suppose Corbyn sees through this and insists upon a long extension as the price of any new deal. (Even if he does not, the EU is likely to.) May has set a trap for him too. Imagine they agree a new customs union to slot into the political declaration. This is Labour Party policy and could squeak the deal over the line. But first, this will not be sufficient to guarantee our economy, as the single market is of far greater significance. Second, the political declaration is entirely non-binding. May has already promised to resign if her deal goes through, and she will inevitably be replaced with a devout Brexiter. The evidence suggests that this new prime minister will be looking to the Tory party and not to the national interest. In order to appease the grassroots, he or she could easily tear up the political declaration. But in any case, May is not interested in Corbyn's opinion. If she was, she would have eagerly sought it after the referendum, after the general election, after her deal was voted down. She simply wants him to share the blame for the forthcoming disaster and neutralise the Tories' electoral collapse.

This is where things become pressing for Corbyn: a deal delivered with Labour votes could destroy both parties. If May agrees to a customs union, her hardline backbenchers will declare a civil war. In that moment of Tory implosion, the most right-wing, nationalist government of modern times would be rescued by a socialist who despises it. How could Labour defend such a relief mission? The twin actions of propping up May’s government and delivering a Tory Brexit would shatter Labour’s coalition.

Corbyn will of course press for a general election, but that still seems some way off. Even a no-confidence vote requires two stages a fortnight apart, and so could not be called before next week’s summit. But in any event, Labour has been on the move. In the past week the party has been bolder and more pragmatic than at any time in the last three years. This week Corbyn whipped for both a “Norway plus” option of single market and customs union, and for a confirmatory referendum. A year ago either would have seemed unthinkable.

The Labour leader now has the upper hand if he cares to use it: his only way out of May’s trap is to agree a customs union (or Norway plus) with a referendum attached to it. Remain, or accept this revised deal. If he declines a referendum, he will alienate the majority of his MPs, Labour members and voters. If he accepts one, he can trumpet the success of Labour’s Brexit policy, parade his prime ministerial credentials and perhaps even give his MPs the option of backing a customs union Brexit in the referendum campaign. Corbyn has already thought the unthinkable. In these uniquely dangerous times, his colleagues must do the same.

There is one basic reason, and here comes the truth of the matter. Parliament has indicated time and again what it does not want. It does not want no-deal. It does not want May’s deal. It does not so far want a customs union or the single market. In other words, it does not want any possible permutation of Brexit. In this, finally, it mirrors the country it represents. Britain wants the idea of Brexit but not the reality. And that means something necessary, fundamental and in these last moments undeniable: Britain does not want Brexit at all.