Brexit: A second Op-Ed

Although the UK may last night have moved closer to a second referendum, Brexit remains mired in uncertainty.

I have been prompted to write this article by an Opinion piece in today's Financial Times by Philip Stephens, a strong 'Remain' supporter (like myself). I must therefore begin by apologising to readers who have no immediate access to the 'subscriber only' FT web pages. It updates on my own articles of 14 January and 30 January.

Following the larger than expected defeat of a Labour motion last night in support of the UK's being in a customs union with the EU post-Brexit, its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said that he would now support a second referendum. So, are we closer to another plebiscite today than we were this time last week?

Without going back one millimetre from my belief that this is largely a cynical ploy by Mr Corbyn to try to discourage more Labour defections to the so called Independent Group, I think the answer is 'yes'. But we are still looking at a possibility rather than a better than 50% probability, in my view.

First, Prime Minister Theresa May remains determined to push through her deal, not only for the reason given by Mr Stephens in his article (ie delivering Brexit) but also because she believes (probably correctly) that any other outcome would openly split the Party which has been at the centre of her life since she was a teenager — and possibly irrevocably. Her conduct over the past many months seems to me to confirm categorically that she places a higher priority on saving her Party than she does on saving the country.

This being said, Mr Stephens is absolutely correct in his damning assessment of the deal she has negotiated and a genuinely substantive parliamentary debate on it would surely lead to its outright, absolute rejection in even starker terms than we saw in January. But it is by no means certain that we shall see such a debate; or, indeed, that the House of Commons is actually capable of conducting one.

Second, not all Labour Party parliamentarians actually support a second referendum and some may well defy the whips in the event of a vote. So, it remains far from clear whether a parliamentary majority for another plebiscite could indeed be cobbled together — even if parliament does (as does look increasingly likely) extend the Article 50 deadline beyond 29 March.

However, there are points on which I believe Mr Stephens may be over-optimistic, as follows.

  • As I have already suggested, even given more time it is not clear that parliament would or could turn to "careful deliberation and consensus building".
  • If parliament were to back a second referendum, it is not clear what 'the people' would be asked to choose between — or, indeed, among if they were given more than two options. As I have noted previously, the Cabinet Office has a contingency plan for a referendum choice between the May deal and hard Brexit (although I guess the latter could be ruled out in the event of a binding parliamentary vote opposing the latter). Mr Corbyn, on the other hand, may still want to see the May deal versus a customs union. In other words, the 'Remain' option might not even get on the ballot paper — and there are certainly many parliamentarians who would oppose its inclusion for one reason or another.
  • Then there is no guarantee that campaigning in the run up to a second referendum would be any more facts-based, as Mr Stephens hopes, than was the case in 2016. The largely pernicious and anti-European British press has hardly had a Damascene conversion since then (though I concede that the Daily Mail has shifted its stance somewhat). And the Farages, Bojos and Goves of this world are still just as determined as they were back then.
  • Furthermore, even if the 'Remain' campaign fought on the basis of 'the facts' (which it largely did not in 2016), the Brexiteer falsehoods may continue to prove more seductive to the average voter.

In other words, we are still mired in Brexit uncertainty and it may yet be that Mrs May can win over sufficient parliamentarians (including among the hardliners in her own party) to get her deal through — possibly as the default option if, as I think it will next month, parliament rules out totally a hard Brexit.

Alastair Newton