DEBUG: blog_post
A political forecast
30 Nov, 2017

Why we need the legislation now for the referendum on the terms in early 2019.

We need a referendum to be placed now in the nation’s political calendar for February 2019 or so because it is unlikely that Labour will vote for a means to stop Brexit in a Parliamentary vote at the end of the process, writes Michael Romberg, a member of the Committee of London4Europe

I would not wish to set myself up as a political forecaster. After all my money was on Remain, Hilary Clinton and an enhanced majority for Theresa May.

But bear with me: just as though I was a real expert, I hope that I will be wrong for interesting reasons.

That “meaningful vote”

What will happen when Parliament has that meaningful vote on the terms of Brexit at the end of 2018?

Theresa May has said the only choice will be to accept the terms or to leave the EU on no terms. That is nonsense of course. Parliament can decide to do anything.

Labour has said that if they do not like the terms they would vote to send the Government back to negotiate some more. That is hardly likely to amount to much; Theresa May’s government would have no credibility in Brussels. It would just have lost a vote on the biggest single policy issue facing any recent government.

A defeat on the terms of Brexit means that the Government would have lost the confidence of the House of Commons. It would mean the end of this Conservative Government.

A general election

Whatever the mechanics required by the not-so-Fixed Term Parliaments Act, I would foresee an immediate general election. Alas it would be in the traditional close season of December to February – let’s hope the poor canvassers are given plenty of mince pies to keep warm.

Perhaps the Conservatives would manage a swift change of leader. Surely they would fight their campaign on support for the terms of Brexit that they had negotiated and an exit on 29 March 2019.

The Liberal Democrats would campaign for a referendum on the terms in which they would be on the side of Remain. It would presumably bring the same result as in 2017 – for so many potential Liberal Democrat voters tuition fees and memories of the Coalition are more important than EU membership.

A winning line for Labour

And Labour? They might adopt the same stance as the Liberal Democrats, or a variant where they support a referendum but say they would be neutral as a party leaving it to individuals to decide which way to campaign (their stance in 1975). But I doubt it. Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum are anti-EU and Labour worries more about its Leave voters than about its Remainers.

So how about this as a policy line: “Brexit was the right thing to do – the will of the people. The Conservatives have made a mess of it. We will do it a lot better. And we will do all the domestic policy stuff better too (austerity, tuition fees…). Vote Labour and we will renegotiate the terms.”.

That sounds like a winning line to me. Leavers will still wish to Leave. Some will not care what the terms are. But many will be disappointed by the deal. Few will think the deal is poor because they made a mistake in voting for Brexit in the first place. Some will blame the EU – and that will strengthen their resolve to leave. Others will blame the incompetence or treachery of the Government – and will be happy to vote for a Brexit-leaning Labour.

Moreover, the true beLeavers really really care. They will not vote for anyone who is ambivalent in her or his support for Brexit. By comparison the passion of true Remainers is tepid. And many Remainers accepted defeat on 24 June 2016.

A referendum could be set up in late 2018

Labour – or indeed the Conservatives after a defeat in the Parliamentary vote on the terms – could call for a referendum instead of a general election. But I do not see it happening. Labour is not going to say that the Conservatives negotiated really well, really competently, and those are the best available terms so the only alternative is to Remain. Parties instinctively wish to fight elections – it is why they exist. Calling then for a referendum risks being seen as being closet Remainers and the Leave voters would not forgive the party in the general election soon after.

Moreover, Remain would not win a referendum held at short notice when both main parties would have been so committed to Brexit until the start of the referendum campaign.

So it won’t happen and anyway we would lose.

That is why we need a referendum on the statute book now

It would give the supporters of Remain a focus. We would have to start thinking how to persuade Leave voters to vote Remain, not how to get Parliament to ignore their votes. We would have to make the positive case for the EU. The Remain voices in the biggest political parties would have a reason for speaking out.

Importantly, Labour – and the Conservative rebels whose votes would be needed to set it up – would be able to get away with it. It is not just that the arguments for a referendum are good ones: no-one takes a project from idea to implementation without a project review; yes 2016 provided a mandate, but that was provisional until there was a plan; a referendum gives the people not Parliament the final say.

But if Remain wins the referendum then the anger that Leave voters will feel will be focussed on the referendum campaign not on the by then distant decision to set it up. In other words, Labour will get away with setting up in 2017 a referendum to be held in early 2019 in a way they would not do if they set it up in December 2018.

Hence the need to focus our campaigning on persuading MPs and peers to amend the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to provide for a referendum on the terms. You can find model letters to MPs and to the Mayor on this site.