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The Meaningful Vote is just the beginning
10 Dec, 2018

Chair's message to members  - 10 December 2018

Dear Member or Supporter

I know that you have all avidly read the explainers about options and procedures (here are the House of Commons library short explainer and the BBC News summary if you want a refresher). No-one knows what will happen or how long the uncertainty will last. When I now run through one way things might turn out it is not because I have found the gift of prophecy. It is because I wish to use this illustration of one of the many possibilities as a structure on which to hang three messages:
  • be patient - the one question that matters may not come to the fore just yet;
  • we must keep our nerve and use our resilience even if we lose at first - there will be more opportunities to win later; and
  • keep campaigning - the situation is so fluid that anything might happen and it is important that our voice is heard  calling for Remain and a referendum on the terms with the option to Remain (People's Vote).
 

Votes on the deal


Tomorrow Tuesday 11 December will see a number of votes on amendments and then on the Government's motion, as amended if amendments have been passed. We will probably not know what amendments are to be called until Tuesday.
 
The expectation is that the Government will not get its deal through. 
 
Perhaps, however, it will succeed. Business in particular has generally backed the deal, focusing on avoiding the chaos of no-deal and failing to realise that the deal would bring a repeat of the years of uncertainty that firms have found so damaging. Perhaps Theresa May will win enough MPs round. No matter. If successful the motion would be followed by the Withdrawal Bill. That can be amended to make Brexit contingent on a referendum.
 
Perhaps there will be an amendment calling for a referendum. If so, that will probably be lost because Labour will not back it at this stage. There are tactical debates in the Remain movement on whether an early motion for a referendum that is unlikely to succeed is nonetheless good because it maintains pressure or bad because defeat saps momentum. Either way, we can wait until next time.
 

Votes on confidence and a general election

Once the motion has been defeated, Labour will presumably seek a general election via a vote of no confidence. It seems unlikely to win that vote. Apart from Jeremy Corbyn and some but not all Labour MPs it is hard to see who would really want a general election. For Theresa May it would be what Germans call a Flucht nach vorn - fleeing forwards. But given her poor performance as an election campaigner in 2017 it is hard to believe her MPs would let her risk their seats again. The ERG wish to stop the deal, not have a Corbyn government. The DUP cannot hope for a more advantageous position than they have now, supporting a Conservative minority government. If however there is to be a general election we can focus on getting a pre-Brexit referendum into the manifestos.

What I have not been able to work out is why Jeremy Corbyn wants a general election. Of course I get that he wishes to be Prime Minister, end austerity and implement the rest of his domestic agenda. But his stance on Brexit has largely been to watch passively from the side and make speeches designed to reassure both Leavers and Remainers that he was on their side really. It is an unimpressive performance for an Opposition, though it served them well in 2017. But it is quite untenable in government. Right now, Government is Brexit. The same would be true for the next five years if Brexit went ahead. Theresa May could not act on her socially conscious Burning Injustices speech because of Brexit. Prime Minister Corbyn would also not be able to implement his policy agenda. Moreover, Brexit divisions cut through all parties. Apart from opposition to Tory Brexit there is no agreed Labour policy on Brexit. Governments act. Actions reveal policy. Strategic ambiguity - deception -  would no longer work. It hard to believe that the electorate in a 2019 pre-Brexit general election would ignore Brexit as it largely did in 2017. Nor would a promise of a referendum be enough.

 
More Brexit options

So let's assume there is no general election. I suggest that MPs will not dare to be quick to chuck Brexit, given the strength of feeling of Leave voters and the politically binding 2016 result. So they will first look around for other Brexit options. Never mind, we can wait. 
 
Some will be only cosmetically different to the Prime Minister's deal. The Prime Minister herself might negotiate some changes in Brussels. Perhaps "Jeremy's Better Brexit" will be given yet another airing, as in his speech opening the debate on the Meaningful Vote or in an article in the Guardian.
 
Others will be radically different to Theresa May's deal. 
 
With luck no-deal will have been rejected by MPs - and will no longer be available to scare business. But a commitment to go with the Withdrawal Agreement element of the deal and change the Political Declaration to move Great Britain to a Canada/ FTA relationship, accepting a Customs border in the Irish Sea, might be an ERG option. There is substantial public support for No-deal and similar options. But in Parliament the ERG's support is pretty well limited to them.
 
Or MPs might focus on a radically softer Brexit: Norway/ EEA or Norway + Customs Union. But a Brexit that does not end freedom of movement will not be seen as a real Brexit by many Leave voters. Some of the expectations loaded onto the EEA emergency brake are surely deluded. Everyone will ask what is the point of accepting almost all EU rules without a say. Corbyn will not wish to be bound by state aids rules. While Norway might have been a sensible compromise to discuss in the Autumn of 2016, it would not have had much chance then given hostility to immigration. Moreover, the polarisation that has happened since and the insistence of both main party leaders over two years that Brexit means the end of freedom of movement makes it hard to take forward.
  

Delay the decision

The Article 50 deadline comes nearer every day. Some (Yvette Cooper, Nicola Sturgeon, Sadiq Khan) will argue that it should be extended. But the problem has not been lack of time for debate. It is that we have not used our time to have a debate. Rather the ERG have demanded that their fantasies should be honoured, the government has humoured them, and the opposition has been elsewhere or supportive. Only a deadline will force a concentration on reality.

Nor is the EU likely to agree to an extension just for more faffing around. An extension to allow a referendum would be viewed positively by the EU.
 
There will be all sorts of procedural games where the Government tries to prevent a vote for a referendum. 
 
But eventually, Parliament will be stuck. 
 
 

The real choice

Then perhaps there will just be two choices. Remember that the Prime Minister has more resilience than the rest of us put together. So the first alternative would be to go unequivocally for Theresa May's Brexit, brought back from the dead, perhaps with a little touching up courtesy of some friendly make-up artists in Brussels. It is after all an attempt to deliver something of the Brexit agenda - ending freedom of movement - while minimising the damage to the economy. One could think of it as the Best Brexit Available In Real Life. Or for those of you who remember the landmark EU air pollution directive calling for the use of Best Available Technology Not Entailing Excessive Costs (BATNEEC) the deal would be BABNEEC.
 
The second alternative is to Remain in the EU. Politically, Parliament cannot decide that on its own. It would have to refer the question back to the electorate via the People's Vote offering the choice: deal or Remain. Parliament could do so while approving the deal subject to a referendum, rejecting the deal but nonetheless putting the question to the electorate or not expressing a view on the deal.
 
So, two of my three messages will have been needed to get here: patience (all this will take time - or it might all happen very quickly) and keeping our nerve. Sadly, nothing here is "inevitable".

 
 
What about the need to keep campaigning? 

The question is which of those alternatives does Jeremy Corbyn choose. Does he go with his party and demand a referendum? Does he go with his long-standing Eurosceptic policy stance dating back many years and back Brexit, as he has done pretty consistently since 24 June 2016? That choice will decide the outcome. 

 
So, we must all continue to work hard with MPs to bring about victory. We can do that in two ways: 

  

Rally in Parliament Square

 
In addition the Brexit - Decision Day Live rally in Parliament Square organised by the People's Vote campaign will start at 17.00 on Tuesday 11 December. You will be able to watch the debate and learn the outcome of the Meaningful Parliamentary Votes live on giant screens. You will also be able to hear from politicians and other speakers live on stage. Sign up to the event here.
 
 
 
 
RICHARD NEWCOMBE
Chair
London4Europe
 
This e-mail sets out the personal views of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of London4Europe.
 
 
Twitter: @London4Europe