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Theresa May’s deal may be on the ballot in a hung parliament

by Hugo Dixon | 02.12.2019

If Labour forms the next government, it won’t put Boris Johnson’s divorce deal to a referendum and may not have time to negotiate its own one. A process of elimination may lead it to put Theresa May’s divorce deal up against “Remain”.

To be clear, only her Withdrawal Agreement would be put to the people. Labour would have time to negotiate a new “political declaration” sketching out a much closer future relationship with the EU than either May or Johnson envisaged. 

Labour says it will put its version of Brexit to a referendum within six months. This is an incredibly tight timetable. The respected UCL Constitution Unit says in a report published this week that a minimum of 22 weeks are needed to mount a referendum. The EU won’t want to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement anyway. It spent years negotiating one with May – and then allowed Johnson to turn the Northern Ireland “backstop” into a “frontstop”.

But Labour shouldn’t mind. After all, what it really objected to was May’s political declaration. By contrast, it detests Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement because it abandons May’s bare-bones customs union and commitment to workers’ rights, consumer protections and environmental standards. 

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So the simplest thing for a Labour government would be accept May’s Withdrawal Agreement and renegotiate her political declaration. Since the latter is not legally binding, the talks could be wrapped up in a few weeks. Both Labour and the EU would be happy to draft something that kept us in the customs union and close to the single market. 

There would still be knotty questions such as: how much we would pay for access; whether there would be free movement of people; and whether we would get any say over EU trade policy. But these could be nailed down in the subsequent trade talks if the public decided in a referendum that they wanted Brexit after all.

This is not, admittedly, the conclusion reached by the UCL Constitution Unit. It says the idea that “Theresa May’s version of the Brexit deal somehow gets revived, looks highly unlikely, so we do not consider it further”. But since the Unit doesn’t examine the scenario, it’s hard to know why it’s viewed as so unlikely.

The Unit also gives credence to a bizarre idea – that Labour might put Johnson’s deal to the vote in a referendum. It says Brexiters would view a choice between a Labour deal and Remain as “illegitimate”. 

While that may be true, just because Johnson and Brexiters would scream blue murder doesn’t mean a crime would have been committed. After all, in the scenario we are considering, he would have lost an election he had called to get a mandate for his Brexit. If he’d wanted a referendum on it, he could have had one. But having demanded an election and then lost it, a reasonable response would be: “tough luck”.

Edited by Michael Prest

4 Responses to “Theresa May’s deal may be on the ballot in a hung parliament”

  • Anyone wonders why many, who follow the Brexit proceedings from within the EU, have a problem looking at the UK as being all there? Especially the apparent easy acceptance of blatantly lying politicians on both sides of the political spectrum is an infinite source of wonderment.

  • To say that the proceedings have become extremely bizarre is putting it mildly. A year ago, who’d have thought BJ would be PM ? The UK has become a basket case, I’m afraid, and is a definite candidate for the funny farm. All of this because Cameron lost his nerve and would not stand up to the brexiteers on the back benches – dinosaurs all. It is a clear example of what happens when you have spineless chinless wonders for political leaders – products of the privileged classes and private education. No other nation in Europe has a class system like ours and their politics, while volatile at times, is a lot more rational. They will be a lot better off without us.

  • Why does it take 22 weeks to arrange a referendum, when the general election was arranged in about six? Nobody has w explained this to me . It surely does not need so much time to think up an appropriate question, issue the papers and get it voted on. Obviously if the new government wants to renegotiate properly that would take time