By Conor Tully
International Relations and Russian Undergraduate
When the campaign for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal began last year it was dismissed as a pipe dream. Since then a grass roots movement has grown from Belfast to Cornwall, over a million people have signed the Independent’s Final Say petition and nearly 700,000 marched to Parliament Square in London. As we drift closer towards March it is clear that the only solution to the deadlock in Parliament is a referendum between the government’s deal and remaining in the EU.
The case for a People’s Vote is straightforward. Having been sold a false prospectus the UK will leave with a deal that resembles nothing like the promises made by the Leave campaign. We were assured that our economy would prosper but it has fallen from the fastest to the slowest growing economy in the G7. We were promised a return to parliamentary sovereignty but the government has consistently shown nothing but contempt for parliament. The Leave campaign infamously argued that there would be trade deals galore, £350 million for the NHS and no divorce bill. All of these were quickly cast aside as reality set in. Worst of all was the quick fix to Northern Ireland’s border using some sort of irrefutable (not to mention non-existent) technological solution.
If the Prime Minister is confident that her deal safeguards our economy, alleviates security concerns in Northern Ireland and provides a blueprint for a ‘Global Britain’, then she should have no reservations in putting her proposals to the people in a vote. Then the public would have the opportunity to read the content of the deal and give or withhold informed consent based on how it will impact their lives.
Despite Whitehall making contingency plans for a referendum, Theresa May stubbornly insists that the ‘will of the people’ is an immovable object that was fixed for all eternity on the 23rd of June 2016. She has repeatedly denounced calls for a referendum as undermining democracy despite all of the evidence pointing to a change in public opinion. Using a method that correctly forecasted the result of the general election in 2017, Channel Four’s extensive polling found that support for Leave fell to 46% in November. Furthermore there is now a majority for Remain in 105 council areas that backed Leave in 2016 and every single Labour constituency backs a People’s Vote including the Leave heartlands of Doncaster, Stoke and Barnsley.
Before 2016 the concept even received support from unlikely quarters. Brexit’s poster boy Jacob Rees-Mogg said in the Commons during a debate in 2011, “You could have two referendums. It might make more sense to have the second referendum after the renegotiation is completed.” In 2012 David Davis argued for what he called a “double referendum” including a referendum on the final deal and that, “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy”. Unsurprisingly they have since both changed their minds, yet they deny the electorate the right to do just that on the most important political decision of a generation.
It is puzzling that so many Brexiteers argue that a People’s Vote is unnecessary. They insist that after the negotiations the public are even more frustrated with Brussels and Leave has consolidated its victory. If this turned out to be the case in a referendum, Brexiteers could argue that not only have the public backed the idea of Brexit in principle in 2016 but also the actual deal that puts it into practice. That would put the final nail in the coffin of the UK’s membership of the EU and end this debate once and for all. To quote the late Paddy Ashdown in reality Brexiteers are against a People’s Vote because, “The people cannot be allowed to find out they were lied to and must not be permitted to change their minds.”
As time goes on the strongest case to make to No 10 is not one based on democratic principle nor on rectifying broken promises but one based on cold, hard parliamentary arithmetic. The government simply does not have the votes to pass the Withdrawal Agreement. This leaves several options. One is a gambit along the lines of the Troubled Asset Relief Program in the United States. In 2008 Congress rejected the legislation but the stock market’s reaction resulted in Congress swiftly changing its mind. In line with its current strategy, the government could stress the chaos of a ‘no deal’ Brexit and present their deal as the only viable alternative. This attempt to force enough backbenchers to support the deal will in all likelihood end in failure. The government’s threats are ineffective as Parliament will not back leaving without a deal and would work to prevent a ‘no deal’ by default. Hard Brexiteers, who in spite of all of the evidence cast aside predictions of economic catastrophe after a no deal, are unlikely to change their minds. Labour’s six tests provide them with sufficient cover to argue that the government is not delivering on the mandate of the referendum whilst promoting an undeliverable alternative that they will never have to implement.
Thanks to Dominic Grieve’s amendment on the 9th of January 2019, once the government’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill fails to pass, the Government now has 3 days rather than the 21 days originally provided for under the EU Withdrawal Act to put forward an alternative. This has deeply embarrassed the Government and put Mrs May under an immense amount of pressure. The EU has stated categorically that it will not renegotiate which means that the Commons is left with the choice of a referendum on the final deal or a vote of no confidence in the government followed by a general election. In terms of an election, either a two-thirds majority would have to vote in favour or a simple majority would have to back a vote of no confidence under the Fixed Terms Parliament Act. The fact that the government’s election gamble did not pay off in 2017 should prevent Mrs May from calling an election. Despite denouncing the deal, the DUP and the hard Brexit ERG have committed to supporting the government in any confidence motion. This means that in either case the government would secure enough votes to survive. In constitutional terms, however, it would be remarkable given that the government failed to pass its cornerstone piece of legislation.
Mr Corbyn’s half-baked attempt at a vote of no confidence in December has exposed his weakness. By tabling a motion of no confidence only in the prime minister, rather than the constitutionally significant motion of no confidence in the government, he allowed the Conservatives to take no notice of him. For the leader of the opposition to make such a mistake shortly after the peak of Conservative infighting and when the Conservative-DUP pact was at its rockiest point reflects badly on his ability to read the mood of the House. In public Mr Corbyn’s preference has always been for a general election over a referendum. Regardless of his recent backtracking if the government survives then he will come under increasing pressure from within Labour to back a referendum. Members will point to the party conference’s support for a public vote if a general election is unachievable and his leadership race promise to listen to the membership’s views on policy.
If Labour backs a referendum it will become within arm’s reach. Labour MPs alongside Conservative rebels, as well as those still within the cabinet who are privately supportive and want a free vote on a referendum if the deal fails, combined with the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru could provide the necessary majority. Alternatively, although this is more unlikely, the government could realise that the only way to save its deal is to back a referendum. The U-turn over holding a snap general election in 2017 which had been ruled out by Mrs May after taking office suggests that this is not impossible. The Conservatives could argue that the opposition’s desire to thwart the UK’s withdrawal has forced them to hold a referendum against their will in order to save Brexit.
If the past few years have taught us anything it is to be sceptical about our ability to predict political events. What will happen in the months ahead is far from certain but a People’s Vote is rapidly becoming the only remaining feasible option for both the government and the opposition.
Featured photo provided by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images