PM may be driven to back referendum even though she hates it

by Hugo Dixon | 07.05.2019

If Theresa May’s talks with Jeremy Corbyn fail, she doesn’t have many options. A process of elimination may eventually lead her to put her Brexit deal to the people.

The chief whip told the Cabinet last week that there were only two options that could get through Parliament: either a customs union or a referendum. That’s pretty much on the button, although Julian Smith may have been over-optimistic about the chances of getting MPs to back a customs union, the focus of the government’s talks with Labour.

Let’s imagine these negotiations come to nothing. Where does the prime minister turn?

One option would be to ask MPs what they want to do and be bound by the result. This is what she said she would do if her talks with Labour failed. But she also added an important qualification: “To make this process work, the Opposition would need to agree to this too.”

So what happens if Corbyn won’t play ball, as seems likely? What options would MPs be asked to vote on? And would May be bound by the votes if Labour wasn’t? As the prime minister reflects on all this, she may conclude the whole exercise is either pointless or dangerous.

Another option would be to put the legislation implementing her deal to Parliament. But MPs have already rejected her deal three times. If Labour doesn’t back the legislation, the chance of it getting a majority is slim.

There’s also a cost to failing to get legislation through Parliament. Quite apart from the humiliation, it would mean that the prime minister couldn’t try again during the current parliamentary session. And she can’t start a new session without passing a Queen’s Speech – and her chance of getting support for that is minimal.

Yet another option would be to do what she usually does: kick the can. The prime minister may calculate that, if she can somehow hang on in Downing Street until the autumn without doing anything, she can then put a gun to MPs’ heads and tell them it’s her deal or we crash out with no deal on October 31, the new Brexit date.

Even if she can drag things out that long, her gambit might not pay off. After all, MPs might instead force her to have a referendum.

But it’s far from clear that May can hang on for long enough to try such a ploy. After all, Tory MPs are baying for her blood after last week’s disastrous local election results and expectations of a meltdown in the European elections on May 23. The boss of the backbench 1922 Committee is expected today to ask her to set a deadline for her departure. So doing nothing for four or five months may not be an option.

As the prime minister surveys these dismal scenarios, she may be driven to embrace an option she has always rejected: a new referendum. May clearly hates the idea. But it would at least break the deadlock in Parliament and it wouldn’t contravene the last Conservative party manifesto. This may be why she has held “secret talks” with aides over a three-way referendum – with her deal, “no deal” and “no Brexit” all on the ballot paper – according to the Telegraph.

The fact that the prime minister has said “no” countless times to a People’s Vote doesn’t mean she won’t eventually say “yes”. After all, she has a track record in u-turns.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

4 Responses to “PM may be driven to back referendum even though she hates it”

  • The PM has not said a word about why it’s a good idea for the UK to Leave the EU, and she appears to care not at all about the manner of Leaving excepting that Parliamentary approval for it must somehow be got. So I think we can assume that May strives to implement the 2016 result, knowing that she can blame MPs for any damage that their (seemingly agreed) Brexit may do, and worried about the consequences of being seen herself as not having implemented the “will of the people”. She’s brought these worries on herself, of course — by saying so often that the people must not be “betrayed”.
    It is really no wonder then that May hates the idea of a new referendum despite having nothing to say in favour of the result of the one held 3 years back.

  • These talks are futile. Any agreement will split both Tories and Labour and goodness knows what will follow. The customs union etc is far worse than what we have now. And it is only negotiating within in the U.K.! Whitehall used to be famous for theatre farces and I think this is one more of them.

  • It seems to me that Labour should embrace a Referendum on a customs union compromise. If the outcome is to stay, I believe Labour could live with it better than the Tories. If it is in favour of the compromise, it would be more Boris-proof than all other ‘promises’ by May.