Here’s how to get a referendum even at this 11th hour

by Hugo Dixon | 29.10.2019

If Boris Johnson’s election Bill fails tonight – admittedly a big “if” – the opposition should rally around a plan to get a People’s Vote.

With the Lib Dems, SNP and Labour all now backing a December election, the Prime Minister seems dead certain to get his way. But it’s not quite in the bag after Johnson lost a key vote allowing the opposition to amend his Bill. Downing Street has been threatening to pull the legislation if it is changed in ways he doesn’t like – for example by giving the vote to EU citizens settled here.

So imagine for a second that the election bid fails tonight. The opposition could then call an emergency vote to see if there is a majority for a confirmatory referendum on Johnson’s Brexit deal. If MPs back the motion, they could push ahead with arranging one. If not, they could go back to the idea of a pre-Christmas election.

Pro-Europeans would get two bites at the cherry, not one. They could either get a People’s Vote now; or they could get one if they fail now but defeat Johnson in an election.

The Lib Dems and SNP should find such a motion attractive. After all, they say they want an election because there isn’t a majority for a referendum. Putting a motion to the Commons would test whether this hypothesis is correct.

Indeed, such a vote might be an elegant way out of the bind in which both parties find themselves. Some of their MPs, donors and supporters worry that they are helping Johnson get an election he looks likely to win. If they first try for a People’s Vote and fail, nobody could complain.

Most Labour MPs – including much of the shadow cabinet – should also like such a motion. After all, they don’t fancy their chances of beating the Tories in an election.

They do, though, have a quibble. They don’t want to put the Prime Minister’s deal to the people. They prefer a softer Brexit option, including membership of the EU’s customs union and guarantees of workers’ rights.

The snag is that many of the Conservative MPs who were kicked out of the party don’t like such a choice between a soft Brexit and Remain. They say the Brexiters would scream blue murder because there was nothing for them on the ballot paper. The pressure to put “no deal” on the ballot would then be irresistible. But the one thing these whipless Tories hate more than anything is “no deal”.

A choice between Johnson’s deal and Remain wouldn’t suffer the same problem. The Prime Minister, after all, has negotiated a hard Brexit deal. So there wouldn’t be any reason to put “no deal” on the ballot as well. Many of the whipless Tories might then swing behind a People’s Vote.

If Johnson’s election bid fails tonight, the opposition parties have all got to compromise. There could then be a winning coalition in favour of a referendum. Now is the time to put the national interest first.

Edited by James Earley

Categories: Brexit, UK Politics

3 Responses to “Here’s how to get a referendum even at this 11th hour”

  • I think you are clutching at straws Hugo, but I hope that should the bill fall, as it may, that you do have all of our MPs on your mailing list!
    To have an election with the issue of Brexit unresolved is utter folly, but it would seem that our politicians are incapable of squaring that circle.

  • Looks like Labour are going to back it. The outcome of a GE is in the lap of the gods. The opposition parties need to collaborate and do some serious targeting of seats. These are not normal times so anything could happen. The case fit staying in the EU must be put over simply and clearly. A referendum would have been the preferred option for me!

  • This is history now because the election is going ahead. However Hugo must know that there was no prospect of getting a majority in this parliament for a people’s vote. That is the reason why the Lib Dems (who have all along been the leading advocates of the people’s vote) took this election initiative with SNP support.
    Those who thought we could have strung along in this parliament hoping for the best need to answer this question – what do you think will happen on January 31? Donald Tusk, the main EU supporter for the UK, has made it clear that no further extension can be expected and Barnier has made it clear that no further change can be made in the deal which is on the table. Only a new parliament promising a people’s vote would be capable of negotiating an extension beyond January 31 sufficient to allow time to carry out that process.
    In the event (admittedly unlikely but in this volatile situation not impossible) the Lib Dems win this election they will end the misery by revoking Article 50. Otherwise they will use all the strength the electorate gives them to secure a people’s vote.