With Tories in civil war, all roads lead to People’s Vote

by Hugo Dixon | 21.10.2018

Whether Theresa May is axed in the next few days or limps on, all the government’s choices are hopeless. Asking the people if they still want Brexit is the only sensible option. So long as we step up the pressure following yesterday’s fantastic 700,000 person People’s Vote march, we can get our prize.

Today’s papers are full of stories of Tory plots to oust the prime minister. She has entered the “killing zone” and has only 72 hours to save her skin, according to the Sunday Times. She faces a “show trial” at a meeting of her backbench MPs on Wednesday, says the Mail on Sunday.

We have, of course, heard lurid threats before that didn’t come to pass. So perhaps May will somehow stagger on. If so, her key choice will be whether to do a deal with the EU that she won’t be able to get through Parliament; or propose that we quit the EU with no deal at all, knowing that she won’t be able to get MPs to back that either.

Look at these desperate options in turn.

Level playing field customs union

Last week’s summit went even worse than most realise. The prime minister wanted the whole UK to stay in a customs union as part of the legally-watertight “backstop” needed to keep the Irish border open in all circumstances. She also wanted this backstop to have a time limit.

If May had managed to get both, she might just have persuaded her MPs as well as Northern Ireland’s DUP to rally behind her. But the EU rejected both her pleas. And while it was prepared to consider the whole UK staying in the customs union, it wants this idea not in the backstop but in the “political declaration” on our future relations, which won’t be legally binding.

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This matters because it means the terms under which we might stay in the customs union will be up for grabs in the subsequent negotiations – when the EU will push for a so-called “level playing field” to ensure we don’t get an unfair advantage. They will want us to follow their rules on social, environmental and competition policy, without a say – and aspects of tax policy too, according to yesterday’s Telegraph.

It’s hard to see how the prime minister can get such a policy through her Cabinet, especially now the Brexiters led by Michael Gove and Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, are insisting on legal advice before they sign up to anything. Even if she did, she wouldn’t get it through Parliament. The chief whip told her last week she would lose 100 MPs, according to the Sunday Times.

Her latest scheme, to extend the “transition” – the limbo period after we quit the EU when we stay in its single market as well as customs union without a say on the rules – won’t wash with our European partners either. Dominic Raab’s idea that this could be an alternative to the backstop is pie in the sky. The Brexit secretary, a lawyer by training, must know this – suggesting he is throwing it into the debate as a smokescreen to disguise the government’s lack of a strategy.

Boadicea no deal

The problem is that May’s alternative – charging ahead with no deal – is equally hopeless. She herself knows it would be mad, despite her “no deal is better than a bad deal” rhetoric. If she tried to push it through her Cabinet, she would probably provoke resignations from the more sensible members.

True, the prime minister would buy herself more time with the hardliners if she found her inner Boadicea and set herself up as a strong leader determined to fight the continental Europeans. David Davis and Boris Johnson wouldn’t have any excuse to kick her out.

But don’t forget that Boadicea ultimately went down to a terrible defeat. And so it would be for May. If she tried to charge over the abyss without a deal, many Tory MPs would join with the opposition to stop her.

Kick her out

What then about the option of axing her? Forget that the Tories would engage in a further round of blood-letting to determine who should replace her – with Davis, Johnson, Gove, Raab and others all contending for the throne. Any new Conservative leader would struggle just as much, if not more, to persuade Parliament to crash out with no deal or to do a half-in-half-out deal where we follow the EU’s rules without a say.

Aren’t there other options? Well, in theory, there are: a Canada-style deal, a Norway-style deal, and a hybrid where we start with Norway and then flip to Canada. A new prime minister might toy with these. But they are all hopeless.

The EU would only give us a Canada-style deal (which, incidentally, would be far worse for our economy than our current deal) if we agree the backstop. The border in the Irish Sea would then be pretty hard. Any prime minister advocating this would lose the support of the DUP, Scottish Tories and loyal Tories such as Amber Rudd too.

Norway has full access to the single market. Combine that with a customs union and the economy would be protected and there would be no need for border controls. That would appeal to lots of pro-European Tories such as Nicky Morgan – as well as the Scottish Tories, some Labour MPs and conceivably the DUP and the Scottish National Party.

But it is hard to see any Conservative prime minister proposing this – as it would flout the manifesto commitment to pull out of the single market. It would mean free movement, payments to the EU budget and following its rules for ever. That would make a mockery of taking back control.

Meanwhile, the hybrid of starting with Norway and flipping to Canada – as proposed by Gove’s friend Nick Boles and now backed by Frank Field, the semi-detached Labour MP – raises more problems than it solves. The EU might let us do this in the form of a multi-year transition. But we would have to follow all its rules and pay into its budget during that period. What’s more, it would still insist on the Irish backstop because we would be saying “Norway” wasn’t permanent.

What’s the solution?

The prime minister has a tough week ahead. She addresses all MPs tomorrow, has a full Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, has been asked to speak to her backbench MPs on Wednesday and then will convene her Brexit Cabinet on Thursday. There is no obvious way through the thicket for either her or anybody who wishes to stab her in the back.

But time is ticking. The economy is suffering, with 80% of businesses holding back investment because of Brexit, according to the CBI. Meanwhile, our standing in the world is falling, with Germany’s Spiegel writing a column this weekend called “watching a country make a fool of itself”.

There is only one good solution out of the mess: a People’s Vote at the end of the talks with the option to stay in the EU if the people don’t like what’s on offer. Yesterday’s march gave an amazing platform to press for this. Now we can step up our campaigning by writing to MPs, volunteering or donating. We can stop this, yes we can.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

13 Responses to “With Tories in civil war, all roads lead to People’s Vote”

  • Any Leave voter waking up this morning must have felt themselves to be in a very confusing place. After the People’s Vote march of yesterday full of strength and unity on one side of them and a Government in bitter and deluded turmoil on the otherside, they must wonder where their place in all this now stands. With their hopes and dreams of a powerful stand alone Britain crumbling they must surely realise now they were conned by power merchants who don’t give a hoot about what is best for them. Walking back through Hyde Park yesterday after the march a lone voice called to me from behind a tree ‘ we’re leaving’ …..pathetic. Wouldn’t even show his face.

  • Yesterday’s march was amazing. Very uplifting and encouraging. We even had some favourable coverage on the BBC, compared to Farage’s pathetic gathering in Harrogate. Set up with the usual image of ‘bueno typo’ Nigel having a pint and one bloke in the audience saying,’We voted leave, get on with it.’
    Nigel Evans was on BBC Five Live and pressed on the fantastic numbers marching yesterday and he said he wasn’t bothered because 17.4 million was more than 700,000 and we were leaving, so there. He forgot to say that the ground has moved since June 2016 and that HALF the country has been IGNORED by this atrocious, stupid government.
    Yesterday gave me back a bit of faith in this country. Thanks everyone.

  • When the dust settles who will count the cost in lost dreams and lost money? How many sleepless nights full of worry and stress have been had by so many? Where is Cameron? Will he stand up and accept his arrogance and incompetence failed to defuse the xenophobic bombshell that has brought so much misery to so many?

    Where are Farage and Dakre and Murdoch and all the others egging us along this path of doom? Will they suffer? Are they homeless, unemployed or suffer a broken home because of their quest for power and control? A game for them, lost life for those who have been jerked around like puppets on a string.

    The perpetrators of this mess will walk away scot free bellowing how they were right and we will rue the day we decided not to follow their desires. They belong in prison and a life of shame for what they have done.

  • I would have liked to have joined the march but I’m an ex-pat pensioner, so with limited means the trip over to London wasn’t going to happen. But I was there in spirit, as I’m sure, millions more were. The leavers keep saying “we won the referendum, get over it”. However, they forget that 2016 was the SECOND referendum, the first, in 1974, was won hands down by the Remainers. So if the Leavers felt that they had the right to keep agitating for a (2nd) referendum, why shouldn’t we, the Remainers, keep agitating for a 3rd referendum ? Especially now that we know just how awful even a limited deal will be, let alone no deal.

  • Over 17 million people signed what Brexiteers consider to be an irrevocable agreement to leave the EU being assured we would be £350 million per week better off . Two years later we find that we are £500 million per week worse off. But the right wing extremists know Britain will be difficult to con twice since the deceit and lies have been exposed in the two years since the referendum. The Brexiteers would make a hateful government if Mrs May is deposed………. few folk would want that, or a degraded passport or further devaluation of the Pound. The latter amounts to a Brexit tax on virtually everything we buy. Charge the Brexiteers with treason……. they have damaged our country which will take years to recover !

  • An interesting point that seems largely to have been missed was that May said the extended transition period might be needed “to avoid a hard Brexit” since the 20 month period might not be long enough to establish the post Brexit EU/UK realtionship. This means that she has abandonned the “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra. It may also mean that faced with just such a hard Brexit if talks fail this year, she may back a People’s vote or even act to revoke A50 notice. Either event would do much to restore the credibility of HMG, but it is painful beyond beleif that we should find ourselves in the current predicament.

  • You don’t consider another option – withdraw Article 50 letter, pending people’s vote’/informed referendum? And do it now, don’t wait for the ‘deal’ that may never come? TM could perhaps regain some initiative this way, without pulling UK out of any part of EU prematurely? Sooner or later (preferably asap) she is going to have to call the bluff of the ‘breckers’ on he benches behind her?

  • Completly agree that Conservative party in turmoil. So you’d naturally think the leader of the main opposition party would be heading up an anti-Government demo of more than 600,000 protestors. But where was he? At a conference in Geneva talking about the Pinochet regime in Chile 20 years ago.
    Is Corbyn campaigning to become the next Chilean Prime Minister?

  • I’m British, I didn’t get a vote because I live overseas. I’m flying back to Poland after demonstrating. A people’s vote is a good idea, but still excludes people who deserve a say. Long live the European Union. Long live the four freedoms. Down with despots. Down with Theresa May and the disgusting ministers she appointed, and those awful MPs of all parties who give her any support. They should all move to Moscow, leave Britain in peace, and be stripped of their citizenship.

  • Certainly, do write to your MP. However, rather than exhorting him or her to attempt to pass primary legislation on organising a second (semi-constitutional at best) referendum, urge your MP simply to rally colleagues towards suspending the exercise of article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. You might have heard or read the argument according to which solely a second referendum would allow to avoid a political crisis of colossal proportions. But, obviously, such a crisis is already happening and a second referendum would not necessarily compound it less than a parliamentary vote on article 50. Also, to give further credibility to the notion that “direct” democracy through referenda would be more democratic than the exercise by Parliament of its sovereignty would undermine further British democracy with likely consequences towards the eventual dislocation of the Kingdom. And, by the way, it is called demagoguery.

  • The government says that we cannot overrule the decision of the people’s referendum because that would be undemocratic. However the government is prepared to overrule democracy when it suits them. Witness the overruling of democratically elected local governments when the government wants to encourage fracking at all costs but local planners do not want it.
    What hypocrisy !!