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Analysis

With Brexit up in air, momentum for People’s Vote builds

by Luke Lythgoe | 04.04.2019

As the Brexit debate finally seems to moving on in Westminster, cross-party support for a public vote is really picking up.

One of the more remarkable comments last night, and easy to miss as other remarkable events unfolded elsewhere, came from Philip Hammond in an interview with ITV’s Robert Peston. Asked about a referendum on Brexit, the chancellor said:  “Many people will disagree with it, I’m not sure there’s a majority in parliament for it — but it’s a perfectly credible proposition and it deserves to be tested.”

Pressure is even greater within the Labour movement. Dave Prentis, the general-secretary of Unison, the biggest union in the UK, said the union would “support the principle of a confirmatory referendum on any agreement”.

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry confirmed that a deal ignoring a public vote would be “in breach of the decision made unanimously by Conference in Liverpool and overwhelmingly supported by our members”. To avoid any further confusion, she added that staying in the EU had to be on the ballot paper. This stance was backed up by deputy leader Tom Watson.

The momentum from within Parliament and across the national Labour movement will be crucial for convincing Jeremy Corbyn to push for a public vote in talks with Theresa May this week – and in any subsequent Labour initiative.

The growing pressure for a public vote is, however, likely to become the backdrop to the May-Corbyn talks ultimately failing. Having emerged positive from yesterday’s meeting, the Labour leader later described them as “useful but inconclusive” and said there had “not been as much change” in the prime minister’s position as he’d expected. She continues to push back against a new referendum and it isn’t even clear if she’s willing to soften her position on a customs union, The Times reports.

If May really is looking for a breakthrough – rather than just trying to implicate Labour in her Brexit mess – then backing a People’s Vote would be a successful option for her. A confirmatory referendum on her deal would most likely win the support of enough Labour and Conservative MPs to find approval in Parliament.

But ultimately this is a test of whether May is yet willing to put country ahead of party. The pressure from her right-wingers is piling on. Two pro-Brexit ministers resigned yesterday, while hard-Brexit ERG members openly plotted to oust her at a meeting of backbenchers yesterday – slyly floating the idea of “indicative votes” on her leadership.
But the cross-party talks haven’t broken down yet. Corbyn and May will meet again for technical discussion today, and even the DUP are referring to a customs union as a possible “temporary staging post” towards a final Brexit outcome. In the next few hours and days, we shall see whether May is really prepared to shake up the Brexit debate and try to bring some clarity and closure to the country by putting a deal to the people.

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