Forget What You've Heard: A Second Brexit Referendum Still Won't Happen
While Labour have come out in support of a referendum, the only way to actually force one would be electoral suicide.
The Independent Group at Nando's. Photo: Chuka Umunna / Twitter
Funny how the law of unintended consequences works. The Independent Group might be 11 powerless chuckleheads burnishing their Nando's cards, but simply by existing they've begun to re-shape the Brexit endgame.
For starters, since the TIGs arrived, Jeremy Corbyn has tanked in the polls. That has undermined his ability to fend off his many internal enemies. Which, in turn, is why Labour’s moderate deputy leader Tom Watson went to him with an ultimatum over the weekend: change your position, or face further losses. Which is how you get to what happened late on Monday, when the news came that Corbyn will back a second referendum.
In one sense, this is predicted – since last September, Labour’s official policy has been a one-two-three punch combo of ditherings: push for a General Election. If not: push for a Brexit that allows us to remain in the Customs Union. If not (1.) or (2.), then push for a Second Referendum.
So it's fair dues that if (1.) has failed, and (2.) has mainly failed – the cross-party talks with May seem to be going nowhere – then he should proceed to (3.).
Only, Labour’s Brexit minister, Sir Keir Starmer, has been allowed to go a crucial step further. Asked what would be on the ballot paper, he suggests "Remain or May’s Deal".
Cynics might point to the fact that, whatever your thoughts on present multi-vehicle pile-up, the one thing we do categorically know about Brexit is that Remaining In The EU has already been excluded as a possibility by a national referendum.
Which makes Monday a defining moment for Corbyn's Labour. The TIGs have made him a TIG. The fence-sitting era is over. And with it, Corbyn’s fragile coalition is dissolving – the four out of ten Labour voters who backed Brexit won’t forgive him. But he has chosen the six out of ten – the more metropolitan, younger, Momentum wing of the party. This is the moment Labour chose Highbury over Hartlepool, and the electoral consequences of that fork in the road will be with us for decades.
Meanwhile, a day later, on the other side of the desperately flailing wanker curtain, Theresa May was also busy doing something she said categorically she’d never do: delaying Brexit.
This was more predictable. Part of May’s long-term strategy has been playing a brutally effective game of bait-and-switch with Parliament – promising votes, then cancelling them, three in the past month. There’s yet another non-meaningful vote tonight too. But then again, there’s also The Sweeney on ITV4.
May’s latest wheeze is another new set of dates for your diaries: the 12th, 13th and 14th of March.
Each day will be about slicing off one set of options. On the 12th, MPs will vote again on the Draft Agreement (but possibly with some useless little menu card of nice new words about the Backstop stapled to it). If that passes, then we’re done, everyone can go home.
Of course, it won’t. Instead, we’ll move onto the 13th of March – the day on which Parliament will be asked whether, having written off the Draft Agreement, they’d like to go for No Deal. The Parliamentary arithmetic is already clear on this one – they won’t.
This leads us onto Day Three in her odyssey of rejection. Having dismissed the PM’s Deal and No Deal, do MPs want to extend the Brexit deadline instead?
It will turn out that they do. So get your big biros and circle June in your diaries. June will be significant. June will be A Thing, the real endgame, after all the other spectacularly blood-splattered endgames turn out to be fake.
Why? Firstly because EU Parliament elections are at the end of May. If we’re still not detached by June, then we will have to go through the farce of electing new MEPs – perhaps for a matter of months. Remember that UKIP won the last EU elections, back in 2014, so get ready for Britain to send nothing but The Brexit Party and Remain R Us MEPs to Brussels.
Secondly, The European Court of Justice issued a couple of clear rulings last year on what can happen in the situation we’re heading towards. We’re allowed to revoke Article 50 unilaterally – we don’t need the EU’s say-so. But we do need the EU’s say-so to delay Article 50 – and because of that, we are only allowed to delay once.
So while this week has been heralded as a two-nil win for Remain, it could easily turn out to be quite the opposite. May still controls the process. Corbyn coming out for a second referendum could easily swing public opinion – but he has no direct mechanism to deliver it. And because we can only have one reprieve, by using up that credit voting to delay Brexit until June, MPs would risk making a second referendum – which would take months to organise – impossible. Their only true out would be to revoke Article 50 entirely – electoral suicide.
Net-net, we’re looking at a June of no Second Referendum, no more can-kicking, and right back to May’s Draft Agreement. At that point, the question is no longer, "Will they eat this rancid text?" It's: "What other option do they have?"