Momentum is swinging back to a People’s Vote

by Hugo Dixon | 14.02.2019

Two weeks ago the prime minister was boasting that she had reunited the Tories and pundits were writing off the People’s Vote. How the tables have turned.

The analysis following Theresa May’s famous “victory” on January 29 was always faulty. She had only managed to get her fractious party to sink their differences by backing another fantasy Brexit – the promise that she would secure “significant and legally binding changes” to the notorious Irish “backstop”.

Now civil war has broken out again. Her latest motion was defeated by 303 votes to 258 after hardline Brexiters as well as pro-European Tories abstained. May didn’t even have the guts to stay in the House of Commons to witness her humiliation.

Tonight’s defeat of the government’s nonsensical push-me-pull-you Brexit policy is not legally binding. But momentum has shifted away from the prime minister. Why would the EU negotiate seriously with her now it sees she is no nearer to getting a parliamentary majority? She will struggle to overturn the 230-seat historic defeat her deal suffered on January 15. She will need 116 MPs to change sides to achieve that.

No deal, no way

Meanwhile, the anti-no deal brigade is more disciplined. Two weeks ago, MPs put down too many amendments. One, from the Tory Caroline Spelman, which made clear Parliament didn’t want to crash out without a deal, did pass. But that success was dwarfed by the failure of an amendment proposed by Labour’s Yvette Cooper which could have forced the prime minister to delay Brexit.

This time round, the MPs were better coordinated. Cooper has joined forces with Spelman, who voted against her two weeks ago, and lined up emergency legislation that could be rammed through next month to extend the Article 50 talks.

Demand a vote on the Brexit deal

Click here to find out more

But they are biding their time until February 27 when the prime minister has face the music again in Parliament. May caved in and agreed to do that because she knew she would otherwise be forced to. She also backed down today and agreed to publish evidence supplied to the Cabinet on the impact of “no deal” because MPs were ready to compel her to.

May will have a similar choice in the run-up to February 27. Between 10 and 20 ministers, including Amber Rudd and David Gauke, are prepared to resign rather than see us crash out of the EU. They are expected to tell her she cannot run down the clock and must ask the other countries for extra time.

If the ministers stand firm, the prime minister can either accede to their demand – or see mass resignations and Cooper’s new legislation will then be crow-barred through Parliament forcing her to ask for an extension of Article 50 anyway.

Where’s Jeremy?

Stopping a miserable deal and getting extra time is not enough. We may end up with just a few months stay of execution – and find ourselves right back where we are today staring at the unappetising choice between a blind Brexit and a catastrophic one.

To get a People’s Vote, we also need a majority in the Commons in favour of a new referendum. And for that to happen, Labour needs to move.

The good news is that the party has taken further steps in the past two weeks along its long road to supporting a public vote. It has put forward its own Brexit plan – and the prime minister has rejected it, after pressure from her Brextremist wing. Jeremy Corbyn probably now needs to see if MPs will back it. They almost certainly won’t and he will then be free to support a new referendum.

There’s still huge amount of work to be done to get a People’s Vote. The parliamentary process is fiendishly complicated. But with the prime minister humiliated and MPs organising to stop “no deal”, there is no sensible alternative.

7 Responses to “Momentum is swinging back to a People’s Vote”

  • is there any indication of how the 27 would vote, if we are down to the last few days before asking for an extension? While they have been united in the negotiations, could they decide that this is not an issue there is any requirement to do so?

    This seems much too big a risk to take; how would we deal with, for instance, a demand from Spain for joint control of Gibraltar – or whatever odd deal needed by Hungary or the current Italian government?

    AS I understand it, if we withdraw Article 50, rather than ask for an extension, that is less contentious – it needs ECJ approval but not unanimity of member states? Whether the ECJ accept that holding a second referendum was a valid reason for withdrawal of Article 50 is perhaps something that needs to be established ahead of time if we can?

    it would also mean voting in the EU elections, whether that is good or bad.

  • Revoking Article 50 would be good as far as Remainers are concerned but the backlash from Theresa May’s Brexiteers and the yellow jacket bully boys would be ferocious. How would the UK ask the ECJ for their opinion on this?

  • I believe revokation of Article 50 does not need permission from anyone and can be done unilaterally by the UK as long as we follow due democratic procedures, up until 10.59pm on 29 March 2019.

  • I agree the ERG will blow a gasket or two, but there seems to be a possibility that TM might face facts at some stage; there are more Remainers than Leavers in her party (if they ever get the nerve to show themselves.)

    As for communication with the ECJ, that is one of the areas where i am comfortable our legal professionals would be more than competent to conduct closed door discussions (other than in a Brussels bar!).

  • I salute the positive tone of Hugo’s article and it’s important not be be defeatist, but realistically things are desperate. The main problem being that the EU itself, noting that both our government and opposition leadership are determined to deliver Brexit, and remain has no proper leadership, have concluded that a second referendum is a forlorn hope and they are working toward damage limitation, trying to help May get her deal over the line.

    Of course things can change very quickly in this soap opera and we will see what the forthcoming weeks bring.

  • I agree with the point Christopher Williams makes about ERG blowing gasket if a new referendum is authorised but we know that the leave side broke the law over electoral spending and that Mr Arron Banks is under investigation over the source of the funds used for the leave campaign. What will happen if Mr Banks is found guilty and we have left the EU. I suggest that there will be many more blown gaskets –but on the remain side. I wonder what would happen then?