People’s Vote must be after Plan B votes, not part of them

by Hugo Dixon | 14.01.2019

It’s great that MPs want to assert control of the parliamentary process if they reject the prime minister’s Brexit deal. But the way they do it really matters.

They must not prematurely have a vote on whether there should be a new referendum. They must first explore whether there are any viable alternative forms of Brexit that command a majority in Parliament.

They will almost certainly discover there aren’t – and at that point Labour will probably be ready to back a People’s Vote. Then, and only then, will it make sense to bring the matter to a head in Parliament.

A plan to take control being proposed by Nick Boles, Oliver Letwin and Nicky Morgan – three Tory MPs who want us to end up staying in the single market in a similar way to Norway – should be viewed in this light. These “Norwegians” have come up with a detailed proposal for how Parliament would operate if MPs vote down the government’s deal tomorrow.

The general thrust that Parliament may need to control the parliamentary calendar if Theresa May cannot come up with an acceptable Plan B is absolutely right. This would build on the important victory in the House of Commons last week when MPs set a tight deadline so the prime minister could not continue to waste time.

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But the Norwegians then want a rapid examination of all alternatives including a People’s Vote. Their motive for doing this would be to show that there isn’t yet a parliamentary majority for a new referendum. They would then hope to persuade MPs to line up behind their “Norway Plus” scheme – which would involve even more rule-taking than the government’s deal.

This is a bad idea. The People’s Vote should not be included in this examination of Plan Bs because it is not a form of Brexit. Rather, it is a way of resolving a deadlock if Parliament cannot agree on any specific type of Brexit.

Ultimately, the Labour leadership will have the decisive say on how the parliamentary process unfolds. It has shown its willingness to help MPs take control and to frustrate plans to crash out of the EU – supporting the two key amendments to this effect last week in the House of Commons. And today, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, made clear that Labour was up for similar manoeuvres (listen from 2’10”).

But it’s not clear that Labour will support the Norwegians’ specific scheme – and unless it does, they cannot get a majority in the House of Commons. The key question then is what the opposition will want after tomorrow’s vote on May’s deal – and after they have launched their vote of no confidence in the prime minister and presumably failed.

McDonnell said today that Labour would want to explore whether any alternative Brexit deal could be negotiated in Parliament – and only then consider a People’s Vote. This suggests that Labour might not go along with a process that considers a new referendum prematurely. If so, that would be the right decision.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

3 Responses to “People’s Vote must be after Plan B votes, not part of them”

  • The real Norwegians are not that keen on the Norway option either for themselves or us. There is a risk that some half baked scheme would find acceptance which would be most unsatisfactory, Britain is leading nation not an also ran.

    The ‘heartfelt letter’ from MEP’s organised by Josef Weidenholzer and inviting us to take a leadership role in Europe should be given more prominence, it seems to be in danger of sinking without trace unfortunately.

  • On the Today programme (Tuesday 15 January) Michael Gove went on about trying to persuade his colleagues (and others) to support May’s Deal, and claimed some success. He said of MPs, “Some can change their mind, some have changed their mind”. But he seems unable to accept that the public can, and have, in many cases changed their minds too, since the referendum two-and-a-half years ago. Yet Gove, full of his own self-importance, is against putting the current “will of the people” to the test in a second referendum.

    If May’s Deal is voted down today, and all other options have been discounted, then Parliament should let “the people” decide. No point asking them to back May’s Deal if it has been comprehensively rejected by Parliament. Let people choose between ‘No Deal’ (favoured by the arch-Brexiteers) and ‘No Brexit’ (favoured by Remainers putting the National Interest first) so that both groups are represented on the ballot paper. Perhaps we can then get a decision based on the information that is now available, and let the government off the hook!

  • It is somewhat “piquant” to discover finally that Hugo Dixon, whose InFacts’ initiative must be praised unereservedly, is actually… Norwegian-compatible. “Any viable alternative forms of Brexit” is literally a contradiction in terms from a EU perspective. And any attempt at modifying the package negotiated by HM Government over two and a half years will translate into an inversely proportional sternness on the part of the EU. Will you finally kindly get it once and for all? No, the time has come on the contrary to push unabashedly for a second referendum, without wasting more time or giving the illusory impression to the public that there might be another way, including that a general election might be one. The modalities of that second referendum should not be a repeat of the poorly organised first one but constitute a better demonstration of direct democracy (whatever that might be), in particular in relation to the rights of Brits living overseas who should be assured, this time, that they will have a say. After all, there is ethical integrity in a process that started with an uninformed, if not misinformed, and botched consultation followed three years later by a second one that should reflect hindsight and a real life pretaste or of all too obvious & quantifiable ills to come.