Chair's message to members - 11 March 2019
Dear Member or Supporter
A series of big votes is coming up: the deal, no-deal, an extension - perhaps the deal again if the expected defeat on 12 March is relatively narrow. Let's be clear what we want: Remain. The only valid mechanism is a referendum. There is no time for a referendum before Brexit day so it needs an extension. But it is Remain that we want. So let's not get side-tracked.
The vote on the deal
It does not really matter whether MPs vote for or against the deal or abstain. 2016 was a vote to Leave the EU. The government has turned that idea into a plan of sorts. The Government's deal is a real-world Brexit. It tells us little about the future - so those who think it means an end to the Brexit debate will be hugely disappointed.
What matters is that there is a majority vote in Parliament for a referendum with the option to Remain. Since Parliament needs to be seen to have implemented the 2016 result, the easiest resolution - especially for Labour MPs in Leave areas - is to call for a referendum while acknowledging formally that the deal is a workable Brexit fit to be presented to the electorate.
The People's Vote campaign keeps holding off support before backing a referendum motion until the time is right. True, unusually for a treaty, ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement requires primary legislation. So we could obtain a referendum by amending the EU Withdrawal Bill. But in practice if Theresa May ever wins a vote for her deal without a referendum condition it will be much harder to retro-fit a referendum. So what if we lose a vote? Let's learn this one thing from Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. Both bring their deals back to Parliament even though they keep being voted down. We can do the same. There is certainly no point in waiting for Jeremy to come out whole-heartedly for a referendum; his commitment to his own Brexit without a referendum and to a referendum only to prevent Theresa May's is as good as it's going to get.
The vote on no-deal
Of course no-deal is a bad choice. No responsible Parliament could agree it. It should be voted down. But then we have to face two facts.
It is the most popular choice of Brexit amongst Leavers - so a third of the country wants it. MPs opposed to no-deal have failed to convince much of the public. We will never unite the country around EU membership if millions of people can say that Brexit would have been wonderful if only the one true Brexit had been given a chance to be chosen.
Everything that makes a referendum more likely makes a referendum less likely. By that I mean that every increase in support for a referendum makes Leaver MPs more likely to rally round Theresa May's deal. The People's Vote campaign consciously decided not to be a Remain campaign. That was a mistake in my view: the best way to create support for a referendum is to create support for Remain: call for a hopeful positive destination not just for an unattractive process. But the campaign's stance does now give us an opportunity. They should follow through the logic of their strategic approach and explicitly call for a three-choice referendum. That could separate the ERG MPs from Theresa May's deal and give us the necessary parliamentary majority.
To overcome the difficulties of a three-choice vote it should be conducted in two stages. Stage one chooses the best available Brexit. Stage 2 is the choice between that Brexit and Remain. With their gift for giving sensible ideas unappealing names, economists call that "Backward induction".
The vote for an extension
There is no point in an extension per se. We have wasted 32 months failing to address what the point of Brexit is. We are only beginning to do so now because a deadline is looming. The idea that a 21 month extension would allow the UK to work out what we really wanted from Brexit is fanciful. With both main political parties promising undeliverable results from Brexit we would just waste the time. An extension is pointless without a plan.
So, let's not get distracted. We wish to Remain. That needs a referendum. That needs an extension. So, let's campaign for Remain/ referendum - an extension is just what follows. So, yes, a vote for an extension, but only with a plan, that plan is the referendum. With the 22 weeks minimum needed to set up a referendum it would be sensible to look for a vote in October or November, implying an extension to the end of this year.
The moral case for a referendum
The problem was that the Leave campaign decided not to have a plan. So 2016 was a vote for an idea. But you cannot implement an idea. "I'll go on holiday" is an idea: it is a call for exploration of the options. "I'll go to Milan to look at the museums in the first week of June" is a concrete proposal that can be implemented by booking flights and an hotel. Nor does approval of an idea commit you to whatever plan is later drawn up. Though you said you wished to go on holiday with me, if you do not like Milan you do not have to come.
It would not be a betrayal: the same people as decided in 2016 would determine whether they liked the plan. The people cannot betray themselves.
True, we do not know what the future relationship will be: everything from Norway Plus to May's and Corbyn's plans (they are not really much different) is on the table, as is a Canada style FTA for Great Britain. Whatever the talks going on at Westminster it is hard to believe that the parties would reach an agreement on a real-world plan, build a consensus in the country and set up a legally binding commitment to a compromise in the time available. But at least we know that the hostile relationship implied by no-deal and the have-your-cake-and-eat-it Brexits we have been promised so often are off. We know so much more than we did in 2016.
What you can do now
These weeks really matter. Write today to your MP (again, I know). Demonstrate with SODEM outside the Houses of Parliament (especially on the days of the expected votes 12-14 March). Join with fellow-campaigners in your local group. Think about what else you might do from our list of ideas. It all counts.
This e-mail sets out the personal views of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of London4Europe.