It must be November 2018
If the upshot of the Parliamentary debates is that the crisis date in Parliamentary consideration of Brexit moves from November 2018 to February 2019 then the chances of obtaining a referendum on the terms are much reduced. London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg writes.
I’ll leave peers and MPs to deal with the Government’s procedural games – though if Dominic Grieve had asked my advice I’d have told him Theresa May was not to be trusted. I will come back later to why Labour’s present stance renders the vote meaningless and what we can do about that.
My worry today is that the date for the really meaningful vote slips.
All the various provisions on offer would have a series of trigger points, from November 2018 to February 2019. That makes sense – the process has a number of points where it can go wrong. Checking on each is important for avoiding a no-deal Brexit. But for a referendum we need the crisis to take place entirely in November 2018.
It needs the Framework of Future Relations to be on the table then – something the Government counter-amendment recognised but the Lords and Grieve amendments did not. It is after all the Framework that sets out the terms that the referendum would be voting on – the withdrawal and transition agreements are not worth a referendum. Opposition MPs need to insist that the Framework is both ready in November and clear – a blog on this page explains the point.
The Brexit agreements would make clear that cake was off the menu. Cold reality would make all but the most convinced Brexiters/ anti-immigration MPs wake up and wonder what to do. The largely indifferent public should begin to take notice of Brexit again. That too would impact on MPs.
Anything could happen in a crisis. I do not think that Parliament setting up a referendum on the terms is the most likely result. But it is a possible result. And it probably takes a crisis for it to become a realistic prospect.
The date of the Meaningful Vote matters for the chances of a referendum
It will be much harder to argue for a referendum in February because the time-table will then be very tight. It is not so much Brexit day (29 March 2019) that is the problem – we can assume that the EU will wish to extend the time-table to allow for a referendum as the prize of the UK staying in is so great.
But there would be a real collision with the time-table for the European Parliament elections in May 2019. Perhaps that can all be sorted with goodwill and a willingness to ignore treaty requirements on election dates and number of MEPs. Perhaps not.
Apart from logistics, there comes a point when the tightness of the time-table would call into question the fairness of the result.
Theresa May’s core skill has been in keeping the Brexit show on the road while postponing decisions, clarity, crunches or anything concrete. At the end of such a series of postponements she may then say to everyone on whatever side they stand: “there is no time to do anything else; you have to go with the Brexit I have negotiated”. We need to be wary whether that is her – and Labour’s - plan here too. With the Government not producing its Brexit White Paper until after the June European Council there must be a risk that she has ensured that the October Council will be unable to agree the Future Framework.
Later dates can stop a crash-out Brexit and insist on the negotiated settlement being adopted. But if you wish to Remain, then that needs a referendum on the terms – a people’s vote. And for that a decision in November 2018 is vastly better than one in February 2019.
Parliament must focus on November
So we must not let the idea take root that there is a series of dates through which the process will move. Matters must come to a head early. November 2018 must be seen as THE DATE. The other dates just as backstop provisions.
I hope that the Lords will when they vote on Monday 18 June in the next round of Parliamentary ping-pong and then MPs when the Bill returns to the Commons insist on focussing attention on November 2018 as the one date when Parliament will address the Framework of Future Relations and bring matters to a head.
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