Why a second referendum is now definitely the least shit option (…and might be the only way forward).

A realist’s guide to this week in British politics.

Bean, Head of Dreamies, at Dispatches from Brexit Britain

To my detriment, I’m an absolute media junkie. I usually don’t get out of bed before I’ve read every single article on the Guardian (yes, this is also a procrastination technique) and I’ve recently further stepped up my game turning my room into a 24-hour newsroom, BBC News blaring while I frantically google ‘Brexit News’. So after two solid days of listening to what feels like every interview given by every MP and every political pundit in the country, I can say with absolute certainty that no one has a clue what to do next.

To cut through the chatter, here are the current options and their obstacles.

Theresa May’s deal 

It’s dead (or ‘extinct’ as the Sun, always one for superlatives, lightheartedly quipped) having been defeated with a historic majority in parliament. It took two years to put together and it doesn’t look likely that it will get through another commons vote with just a few minor tweaks and reassurances. Theresa, as always, wants to renegotiate, but really there’s not much to renegotiate in cross-party talks or in Brussels as she isn’t budging on her red lines.

What’s Brussels saying? Given the red lines Theresa May laid down so early in the negotiations, this is the best deal we’re going to get from Brussels. Also, they’re frankly bemused because Britain can’t tell them what it actually wants. As Brussels has rightly pointed out, the EU 27 have spoken with one voice during this negotiation, while not even the Tory party could reach a consensus, as the no confidence vote tabled against her by her own party shows. (Seems like a distant memory now, but wasn’t that an exciting turn!)

Who feels hard done by? Everyone really, as both Leavers and Remainers opposed this deal. When the public was asked to choose between four different Brexit outcomes, just 12% thought the government’s deal was good. (This recent YouGov poll is really interesting!)

‘No deal’

It’s not really on the table, with a majority of MPs wanting to prevent a ‘No Deal’ Brexit and assuring business leaders this won’t happen, however, it’s also currently not off the table. As Brexiteers have pointed out while gleefully rubbing their hands, triggering Article 50 almost two years ago meant that the UK would exit the EU, with or without deal, on the 29th March 2019. Unless some course of action is taken, the default is leaving without a deal.  Article 50 will likely be extended ( I say this with trepidation in my voice), but given the track record of our government when it comes to things that will definitely not happen and then absolutely do (there will be no snap election, the meaningful vote will not be pulled…), there is every possibility that we might accidentally end up with no deal. This evening, Theresa May said it was impossible to rule it out. Whoops.

Who feels hard done by? Remainers, but also Leave voters who were promised that the trade negotiations with the EU would be straightforward and that there would, in fact, be some sort of ‘a deal’.

What’s Brussels saying? In a nutshell –  a ‘No Deal’ Brexit is a really really bad idea, but the EU have stepped up their contingency planning just in case we can’t get it together before the 29th March.

A soft Brexit (for example customs union/ Norway plus): 

“At last a compromise!” I hear you say. It sounds reasonable and Scandinavian, doesn’t it? Yes, a ‘Norway Plus Deal which keeps the UK in the European single-market would avert some of the immediate and long-term economic danger of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. However, it would also mean that the UK can’t have an independent trade policy and would still have to accept many EU rules, including abiding by the EU’s standards for health and safety, as well as environmental and social protection – god help us without the EU. The even greater sticking point is immigration, as a Norway style membership would keep freedom of movement, and we know how the Tories feel about that. Also, Theresa has ruled it out today so there’s that.

Who feels hard done by? ‘Leave means leave’ voters, Jacob Reese-Mogg, BoJo and Friends, as well as people who realise that if we’re doing Norway Plus, we might as well remain.

Labour’s plan for a no confidence vote and push for a general election

Basically, that didn’t work out the first time round and it’s unlikely to succeed in future. While the Tory party can’t unite to back any deal, they do want to stay in power and Theresa May will likely survive another confidence vote. Labour also need to clarify their position on Brexit, with 75% of Labour members backing a people’s vote and over 70 MPs supporting this option. Jeremy Corbyn told the Guardian he wants to go ahead with Brexit while a lot of his MPs disagree, so really the Labour party is just as messy and divided as the Tories.

Who feels hard done by? Labour supporters who were hoping for a general election, a win for Labour and a Labour-negotiated Brexit or People’s Vote.

A second referendum

Support for a second referendum is growing with 71 Labour MPs supporting a final say, while more than 170 business leaders publicly announced their support for this option. It seems common sense to give people the option to vote on the realities of Brexit, now that we actually know what this looks like and parliament seems in a hopeless deadlock. In a rare moment of clarity, even Jacob Reese-Mogg suggested this in 2011. He’s changed his mind now and both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn aren’t backing a second referendum, meaning that Labour members and MPs backing a second referendum really need to up their game.

What’s Brussels saying? Brussels have indicated that Article 50 could be extended to allow for a second referendum. Donald Tusk has even said the EU would be fine with cancelling Brexit. Really throughout all of this, like a kindly doctor about to perform life-changing surgery, Brussels have tried to let us know that actually, we don’t have to do this and it’s ok to change our minds.

Who feels hard done by? Naturally, Nigel and pals. Leave voters who are still convinced that Brexit is the right path for this country and are afraid to lose a second referendum. However, their numbers may be declining. Recent polls show that support for both a second referendum and staying in the EU have risen considerably.

The key argument I hear against a People’s Vote is that it would be divisive, but to be honest so is every other option we currently have. There is no clear plan from our government on how to proceed. At the same time, the clock is ticking and ‘no deal’ isn’t off the table yet. At the very least, a second referendum would give us an opportunity to interrogate that mythical ‘will of the people’ and work out what the people actually want. Now that the realities of Brexit are clear, informed consent is hardly a betrayal of democracy. 

Yep, it will be gruelling, yep everyone is fed up by Brexit, but the reality is that if we crash out on the 29th March without a deal there will be no more options to have our say. Similarly, accepting May’s deal will by no means end negotiations as the issue of the Irish backstop remains and no one really has a solution for that either.

If you support a people’s vote, now is the time to say so. Email your MPs and talk to people about this. Just as important is staying engaged. It’s so tempting to just look away and pretend this isn’t happening because it’s so complicated and so disheartening, but we have to keep watching what’s going on in Westminster and Brussels – our futures are being decided right now. 

Find out more about a People’s Vote here.


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